Eight Great Water Ices in Philadelphia

A local invention, the redundantly named water ice is a cross between a Slurpee and sorbet, with an influence of Italian ice. It’s cold, it’s icy, it’s sweet—the perfect alternative to heavy ice cream on a hot summer’s day. There are plenty of places to find a cup, so skip the inferior versions—tacky texture and achingly sweet, fake fruit flavor—in favor of the best. Loyalists swear by the South Philly standards (John’s and Italiano’s), and a recent influx of new spots has put a modern twist on the classic confection. Traditionalists argue that a real water ice doesn’t need a spoon (you just slurp it), but then again, traditionalists also put Cheez Whiz on their steaks. You be the judge. (And be sure to try our version of lemon water ice.)

1. Yardley Ice House

Hidden in the back of a parking lot behind a diner about 30 miles north of Philadelphia, this gem is worth a jaunt. The water ice here is traditional—not too soft, not too dense—but the flavors are decidedly modern. Cherry Bordeaux contains whole pitted cherries, while the Coconut is rich and filled with shredded coconut. 77 S. Main St., Yardley (215-321-9788; yardleyicehouse.com)

2. Philly Flavors

This Fairmount stop offers the cold treat in more than a dozen flavors that all taste like the real thing. The traditional Cherry and Lemon are better than good, featuring tiny bits of red fruit and lemon zest in a refreshingly frosty blend. But steer clear of cream-infused flavors like Creamsicle; it's just so wrong. 2004 Fairmount Ave., Philadelphia (215-232-7748; phillyflavors.com)

3. John’s Water Ice

Since 1945, John's has been the cornerstone of water ice in South Philadelphia. With just four flavors—Cherry, Lemon, Pineapple, and Chocolate—John's excels with its limited palate. This version is dense, almost creamy, not too saccharine. The Pineapple is so good, it’s no wonder the family keeps the recipe a secret. 701 Christian St., Philadelphia (215-925-6955; johnswaterice.com)

4. Boston Style Ice Cream and Water Ice/Lix

Lix serves an iconoclastic rendition; it’s got a dense, icy texture that brings back memories of Sno-Cones past, but it comes in refreshing flavors (and colors) like Bing Cherry. You’ll want to make the trek; Lix is on the Main Line near the western edge of the city. 300 Levering Mill Rd., Bala Cynwyd (610-668-3550)

5. Ice Cafe

While some might argue that the thick, velvety confection at this Narberth café doesn't qualify as water ice, others would say, who cares? It's fresh, not too sweet, and appealing across generations. Forget the clearly artificial flavors like Watermelon and Sour Apple, and try stalwarts like Lemon and Chocolate, which is the best in all of Philadelphia. 106 Essex Ave., Narberth (610-667-6423; theicecafe.com)

6. Italiano’s Water Ice

This South Philly landmark claims to have invented the Gelati, a quite tasty layering water ice and ice cream. Whether they dreamt it up or not, they’ve certainly mastered it: Italiano's uses real ice cream instead of the wimpy soft-serve so many other places do. And it makes all the difference. This interpretation is softer than most, but Italiano's prides itself on using real fruit juice, as evidenced by the crates of lemons you often see piled high outside. 2551 S. 12th St., Philadelphia (no phone number)

7. Cityline Water Ice

This nondescript brick place might not get the same press its South Philly cousins do, but it sure gives them a run for their money. Cityline’s version is icier than others, firm and definitely in need of a spoon. Their Pineapple (almost) rivals John's. 7401 Woodbine Ave., Philadelphia (215-871-5950)

8. Morrone’s

Though the sign is shiny and new, reflecting plans to franchise this Philadelphia institution, the shack underneath it hasn't changed since 1925. The ice is made fresh every day, and some flavors, like Orange and Lime, are loaded with bits of fruit. And the texture is quintessential water ice: loose, soft, not quite water, not quite ice. But perfectly delicious. 200 N. 63rd St., Philadelphia (215-747-2902; morronestreatcenters.com)

Keri Fisher has written for Gastronomica, Fine Cooking, and Cook’s Illustrated and is the co-author of One Cake, One Hundred Desserts.

Subscribe to Gourmet