Look, I love Philly: I’m thinking of morally decrepit Ben Franklin (who wrote a serious treatise on how to select a mistress, that buckle-shoed Quaker cochon) and Philly cheesesteaks. Rocky—though none of the sequels—and, wait, did I already say cheese-steaks? Anyway, I love the place…but you have to admit; Philadelphians do talk funny.
Let’s take their pronunciation of the word ”water”—it comes out through their permanently pursed lips into something closely resembling “wooder.” And just as Baltimoreans are from “Bawlamer”, so are Philadelphians from Fluffia. (Though I, myself, am from Nerrra Chel, New Yorrrrrk; try as I might to lose it, I have those growlingly hard Westchester “Rs.”)
All of which brings us to Rita’s Italian Ice, which recently opened at three locations in Westchester: Elmsford (330 Saw Mill River Rd), Mamaroneck (1262 W Boston Post Rd), and Yonkers (600 Tuckahoe Rd). We’re ranking this Philly export right up there with Ben Franklin (though a full slot under cheesesteaks, I’m afraid.)
Now, water ice may sound exotic, but we New Yorkers know water ice as “Italian Ice”—you know, those things that came in little cardboard-lidded waxed-paper cups with the wooden paddle ingeniously locked under the rim? You know…the hard discs of nuclear cherry red or shocking lemon yellow that you futilely scraped at with your paddle until you came up with an icy ruffle of frozen sugar water? Then, still hungry, you chewed on your stained paddle until your mouth was filled with the taste of pine and splinters? That’s right, Italian Ice.
But here’s the thing: those Italian ices of our youth pale next to this Rita’s Philadelphia stuff, which manages to harness bright, fresh, natural flavors that had previously been the province of Jersey-born flavor esters (meaning 100 percent born-in-a-lab). We recently stopped into the Mamaroneck Rita’s before our usual Trader Joe’s run—and the joint was ejecting a regular stream of happy-looking people with brightly stained mouths. For the nostalgia in it, I ordered cherry, fully expecting a hard disc emitting the fake, sickly sweet note of theater disinfectant, and guess what? My cherry wooder ice tasted like actual sweet black cherries. And guess what else? It had little bits of actual sweet black cherries in it!
Stunned, I looked at my long-suffering life partner as he was intently investigating his own melon-flavored wooder ice, poking around in the soft slurry until he isolated a chunk of honeydew. Holding it aloft on his, alas, plastic spoon, he declared, “There’s fruit in here!”
So, soft rather than bricklike, fruity rather than born-in-the-lab, this Rita’s stuff is the real deal. And since the original ownership has been taken over by McKnight Capital Partners—to quote the Rita’s website, “a private equity group led by Jim Rudolph and his brother,
Bill…having owned and operated 48 of the nation’s highest-performing Wendy’s restaurants for more than 20 years”—it looks like Rita’s will soon be everywhere. Usually a grouch when it comes to franchises, in this case, I’m not complaining. Just one lick of a Rita’s wooder ice and I want to shave my head, slap on some buckles, and go shopping for a suitable mistress.