Philadelphia's water ice is the most delicious way to stay cool in a sullenly hot city

These neighborhood jawns are where the hipster meets the immigrant, the old mingle with the young and, for a moment, everyone is happy with one another.
Illustration of water ice against a backdrop of the Philadelphia skyline.
If you want the be-all, end-all of water ice, you gotta make the pilgrimage to the Eternal City of Wooder Ice, Philly.George Wylesol / for NBC News
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By Anthea Butler

Gimme a cherry wooder ice please.

What you say? Wooder ice. That’s right. I don’t want your snow-cone, your store-bought Italian ice, your crappy frozen custard. I live in Philly. Wooder ice is it.

Wooder Icewater ice to you neophytes who don’t live in Philly — is a sumptuous, scrumptious Italian-style ice that is basically ice, sugar and flavoring (preferably real fruit flavor, although you can get fakes like bubble gum) that is mixed together, frozen and served in a cup. Water ice is a summer treat that everyone in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection needs because, as we all know, things can get a little heated. (More about that in a minute.)

Don’t think that Italian ice from a chain can get you into the soul of a city like a wooder ice can.

What makes a water ice superior to the regular snow-cone or Italian ice is the machine used to make the frozen concoction. The machine is essential to a batch-freezing process that freezes the water, sugar and flavoring together, making the concoction into a smooth consistency with ice crystals that form in the mix. A good water ice should come out smooth, not lumpy, and malleable, not hard. When you place it on your tongue, it should be cold, tangy, sweet and delicious, quenching you more thoroughly than any lumpy snow-cone or rock-hard Italian ice ever could.

So now that you want to taste a real summer treat, where do you go? Well first, to get a real water ice, you have to come to Philadelphia to get a wooder ice. It is a religious experience; sure, you can go to Mass in any Catholic church in the world, but nothing beats seeing it in Rome and, if you want the be-all, end-all of water ice, you gotta make the pilgrimage to the Eternal City of Wooder Ice, Philly.

You can get your wooder ice at a chain — shout out to Rita’s, you have saved me from hell in many a town, but points off for calling your water ice alternately "Italian ice" and "custard" — but, preferably, you get your wooder ice from a local in one of the many neighborhoods still holding on to their charms in Philly.

My personal favorite in Philly for wooder ice is John’s. Near the heart of the Italian Market in Philadelphia, it is where you are going to see your neighbors in line with tourists, beat cops and the kids on rideouts — a truly democratic experience. Waiting and chatting is the important part: You have to talk about how hot it is, when you’re going to the shore (the Jersey, as though there is any other) and how the summer is going by so fast. Then you get up to the counter, panting from the heat, and debate for just a moment about a small or a large. (You get a large, of course. And always chocolate, if you are a Philly native.)

Once you’re served, you gotta get outta the way. There aren’t any seats outside the storefront, so you lean against the low wall at the parking lot right next door. You don’t get in your car or walk home; you eat it right there, because it is bliss. And bliss deserves to be enjoyed immediately.

For those of us who don’t have a house at the shore — or a good friend to invite us — wooder ice is a way to keep cool in a city that can be hot, sullen and dangerous. I’m personally convinced that if a wooder ice was given to each kid in Philly once a week, the rate of shootings would decrease significantly. Summers in Killadelphia, after all, can be dangerous: The weekend of June 15 alone saw 19 shootings in Philadelphia, leaving five dead, and there were another seven shootings the following weekend. Every weekend shouldn't be a tragedy in our city of love, yet it is, as soon as the temperature rises.

Wooder ice could help curb violence, in my opinion, because they are sold at neighborhood spots that everyone goes to to cool off, even if you have air conditioning. It’s a meeting place that is central, looked forward to, and loved. Everyone is doing the thing: eating a sweet confection. You aren’t thinking about who you’re going to vote for; you’re thinking about that sweet, cool taste in your mouth, and how there is someone ordering some trash bubble gum flavor at that other spot you tried but hated.

Wooder ice shops also represent neighborhoods in Philly: Even as so much of the city is changing, our wooder ice jawns refuse to be gentrified. It’s where the hipster meets the immigrant, and the old mingle with the young. It is where the new immigrants meet the older immigrants, and for a moment, everyone is happy with one another. The future and the past collide over a sweet treat. In that moment, even the parking authority is forgotten.

So come visit Philly, and get yourself a real summer treat. Don’t think that Italian ice from a chain can get you into the soul of a city like a wooder ice can. Because our wooder ices are the best jawns ever. Don’t let a snow-cone or a frozen custard fool ya. That's just some crap they sell tourists.