John's Water Ice, A Philadelphia Institution

Jul 31, 2016
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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

One more word about the conventions - they're over, finally. The balloons have all been popped. The confetti has been swept up. As you might remember, we visited both convention cities in advance to scout out the lay of the land and to talk politics with local activists. But last week in Philly between the hard-hitting stuff on a hot and humid afternoon, I was kidnapped by my producer Liz Baker. She hurried me into a cab to go somewhere.

OK. Now I'm getting nervous (laughter).

LIZ BAKER, BYLINE: Don't get nervous.

MARTIN: I'm hoping it's going - I won't cry, will I? I'm not going to cry, am I?

BAKER: No, you're not going to cry.

MARTIN: OK. Thank you. OK.

BAKER: It's not - well...

MARTIN: It's not bad.

BAKER: You might get emotional.

MARTIN: Uh-oh. After a few minutes, though, our cab pulled up to a single-story square brick building on the corner of 7th and Christian St.

This is awesome.

John's Water Ice, a summertime Philly institution. Inside, we met the owner.

ANTHONY CARDULLO: I'm Anthony Cardullo, third-generation owner of John's Water Ice.

MARTIN: How did the family get started? I'm tongue-tied because I'm so excited. I'm sorry. I really like water ice.

Michel, this is your future self, take a deep breath. Try it again.

How did the family get started in this?

CARDULLO: My grandfather came over from Italy in the early 1900s, and he originally started off with an ice delivery business. And from there, he developed it into a water ice business, and he also did a home heating business to work in the wintertime right next door.

MARTIN: And John's Water Ice has been a fixture in South Philly ever since, says Cardullo.

CARDULLO: My father took over, and then I took over in '97 from him.

MARTIN: Now, some things have changed with the times.

CARDULLO: They used to hand crank it back then. They would have a stainless steel drum surrounded by ice, and they would put in their ingredients. And they would hand crank it for about 45 minutes. Now we just have a motor running, and it's shaving a stainless steel refrigerated barrel and stirring it in the opposite direction at the same time.

MARTIN: The result is a finely crystallized treat, firmer than a slushy, smoother than shave ice, but more scoopable, not like a popsicle. Water ice exists in other places often called Italian ice, but it just tastes better in Philly.

CARDULLO: Further removed from the area, the worst it actually does. So when you look at the franchises in all their biggest areas are still Philadelphia and New Jersey.

MARTIN: When the weather heats up in Philly, water ice stands pop up all over the city, but it's just a summer thing. John's Water Ice has three locations, but this one on Christian Street is the mother ship.

CARDULLO: We keep it going since 1945.

MARTIN: And still going since 1945? The four-flavor menu - cherry, chocolate, pineapple and lemon.

So good.

GIOVANNA SURACCI: Lemon's probably our best seller. When Obama came here, he got the same thing, medium lemon.

MARTIN: That's Giovanna Suracci. She grew up in the neighborhood, and she's been coming here since she was little. Now she works here. Giovanna scoops some into a wax paper cup to show off her technique.

SURACCI: Everyone does it differently. I usually hold the cup to the side like that and put my finger on the nape of the scooper. And I kind of just like twirl it. I'm pretty fast, like four seconds. Are you a spoon or no spoon? No spoon's the real way to eat it.

MARTIN: No spoon.

SURACCI: No spoon - you just crush the cup a little bit, and you'll be fine (laughter).

MARTIN: You just (laughter) - you know how there's like a thing - you just really like that thing...

CARDULLO: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...And you can't even really explain it? This is like my thing.

CARDULLO: Well, help yourselves. Take whatever you want with you.

MARTIN: Well, in that case, Anthony, can I just fill up this bathtub I brought with me?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ICE ICE BABY")

VANILLA ICE: (Singing) Ice, ice baby, too cold, too cold. Ice, ice baby, too cold, too cold. Ice. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.