Philadelphia is famous for its cheesesteaks and soft pretzels, but there’s another iconic treat that lives in the hearts of its residents: water ice. A scoop of this nostalgic frozen dessert will lure you out of your Philly rowhouse on a hot day!
Water ice is made of flavored water that’s frozen and then blended until its consistency reaches tiny ice granules. The granules are smaller than shaved ice but slightly larger than Italian ice. The combination of refreshing ice and sugar is the perfect pick-me-up on a sticky day.
What Is Water Ice?
Water ice, which you’ll often hear as “wooder” ice in the Philadelphia accent, is a frozen dessert that’s similar to Italian ice. It’s traditionally made from just three ingredients: water, sugar and fruit. Lemon and cherry are the most common water ice flavors, but you’ll also spot mango, strawberry, pineapple and whatever else your water ice shop decided to try out that day. It is totally acceptable to get more than one flavor of water ice in your cup.
While water ice is great by itself, you’ll also hear Philadelphians ordering a “gelati.” A gelati is a scoop of water ice topped with a swirl of frozen custard and then another layer of water ice. Some water ice shops offer a variety of custard flavors, along with a variety of water ice flavors, so you can mix and match. (We’re partial to vanilla custard with mango water ice.)
What’s the Difference Between Water Ice and Italian Ice?
Water ice is derived from Italian ice and uses the same three ingredients (water, sugar and fruit)—but it’s not exactly the same. The difference is that water ice has slightly chunkier pieces of ice, while Italian ice is smoother. Shaved ice, however, has even thicker ice granules than water ice. Water ice is somewhere between shaved ice and Italian ice.
The Best Water Ice in Philadelphia
There are a few great water ice spots in Philadelphia, but on the first hot day of the year there’s no line quite like the one outside John’s Water Ice. If you’re too far from John’s shop or roving water ice truck, then buying water ice from the original Philadelphia Water Ice is also a good way to go, and they’re available in more states than just Pennsylvania!
If Philadelphia is too far away, but you really want some water ice, then make your own at home. Start with our strawberry water ice or lemon water ice recipes, or make both and combine them for a summer treat.
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