Posted by: jevcat | September 3, 2010

The Decline and Fall (Almost) of the Italian Ice

The last (we hope) blast of summer heat is upon us, and my Beloved and I, having air-conditioning only in the bedroom and finances dictating that we run it sparingly, have been forced to develop other means of coping.  One of the most important (and delightful) of these is the nightly consumption of Italian ices, which we obtain from “Ralph’s Famous Italian Ices” and keep in the freezer.  They bring core body temperature down wonderfully, so we eat them for medicinal purposes (though I wouldn’t say “only”).

We are fortunate in living a short drive from the main branch of Ralph’s, a venerable Staten Island institution where the same family has been making a wide variety of superior Italian ices since 1928.  They make ice cream, too, but it was the ices that made their reputation, and all we ever get.  They’re not gourmet, but they’re good enough to make even a heat-hating person like my Beloved admit that there is something to be said for summer.

This has led me to reflect that despite all the food nostalgia prevalent these days, and the fads for various “old-fashioned” and “comfort” foods, no one has yet fastened on the Italian ice.  This may not be a bad thing, as I doubt the addition of flavors such as basil-black pepper ice would improve Italian ices any more than they have (in my opinion) improved ice cream.  Trendier desserts have come and gone, but, as a child of the sixties, I have fond memories Italian ices, the important place they held in my childhood, and the obsession my best friend and I had for them.

There are two kinds of Italian ices.  The first is the soft kind, still served at pizza parlors fresh-scooped into small, pleated white paper cups.  The other kind is hard and comes in a larger Dixie cup and is sold in delis and bodegas.  It is eaten with a spoon (in the old days wood, now plastic), as opposed to the soft kind, which was slurped.

The soft Italian ice was often the crowning touch on childhood lunches at the neighborhood pizza place.  One could, of course, wait ‘til one was finished lunch to order it, but some of us, who were more experienced, would order it during the meal, the eating of which had then to be delicately timed so that all was finished when the ice was ripe for eating, the summer heat having turned the outside to a frosted, beaded slush, while the inside remained cool and relatively firm.

These Italian ices were by no means easy to eat properly.  Coordination was required.  As one consumed the top portion it became harder to obtain what was left.  One simply had to squeeze the pleated cup, forcing what was left of the ice to the top.  Unfortunately, this often also had the effect of causing the melted backwash to ooze out the sides and onto the unwary consumer.  For this reason lemon and pineapple flavors were held in high parental regard, as mishaps that occurred were less likely to show or stain.  However, as one became more adept in the skill, one even dared chocolate in one’s pastel Sunday best with the reckless abandon of youth.

The harder Italian ices, on the other hand, were an afternoon or evening treat.  There is a real art to eating them.  First of all, one must use the spoon provided without breaking it; a metal spoon will adversely affect the palate.  The true connoisseur knows that Italian ices of this variety all have frozen syrup crystals on the bottom (without this it is not a genuine hard Italian ice).  It must therefore be eaten not from the top to bottom, but from top to middle and then bottom to middle.  The art comes in knowing how to execute this technique.  At the start one may either scrape or chop at the ice, but one must turn it with the spoon at precisely the right moment.  Too soon and it will stick and not turn properly; too late and not only will it slip, but one loses a large part of those precious syrup crystals.  It is truly one of the gentle arts, in which timing was as imperative as quick reflexes are for eating soft Italian ices.

Our favorite flavor was something (I haven’t a clue what) called “Blue Champagne.”  Only a few of the bodegas carried it – one of them fortuitously close to my best friend’s house – and they never had much, so scoring a cup was cause for celebration.  I have no idea what the flavor was meant to represent, and, looking back, it was an appallingly unnatural shade of blue, but, at the time, that was part of the attraction.  And the fact that it had “champagne” in the name made us feel marvelously adult and sophisticated.

Back then, we could discuss the brand varieties for hours with the expertise of the true devotee.  Most of these have, alas, disappeared, as have most of the pushcarts that dispensed the soft Italian ices on every street corner of my childhood, leaving the children of today with a scarce and mostly inferior product.  I mourn the joys they will never know – and feel the urge for a Ralph’s run coming on …

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