Water and ice are two things that go very well with drinking in the South. Water to keep you hydrated, to bring out the flavor in a particularly strong bourbon or whiskey, to create… well… ice. And ice to cool things down, from sweet tea to cocktails to a bottle of wine to a bucket of beer. The term “water ice” sounds so absurd, so idiotic, that it must be either a mean trick created by Northerners or one of the many expressions for snow used by the Eskimo. Well, it turns out that it WAS created by Northerners, but it’s no mean trick. The origins of the term are murky, but it seems to be centered around Philadelphia, where the term “water ice” is basically another name for “Italian ice.”
Rita’s, which started in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, over twenty five years ago, used to be called Rita’s Water Ice. They now use the more generic “Italian ice” description, or simply “ice,” for what they make, as they roll out franchises across the South (including 12! locations in Georgia) and come across folks like me who are likely to think they’re nuts for calling something “water ice.”
In Memphis recently, I came across a water ice truck, an offshoot of a retail shop there called Parker’s Water Ice. I actually like the fact that they still call it “water ice” – and are willing to risk confused faces and angry Southern stares. Their water ice was great, as was their “gelati” – a term which Rita’s and Parker’s use to refer to a combo of soft serve ice cream (or custard) and water ice. Confused yet? Good.
No matter what you call it, water ice is delicious (if made well, with good ingredients, as both Rita’s and Parker’s do). And it should catch on in the South like sweet tea has all over the rest of the country – like wildfire.