What Exactly Is Philadelphia's Beloved Water Ice?

Cups of John's water ice
Cups of John's water ice - Instagram

We all scream for ice cream, but don't forget about its large extended family of equally worthy frozen treats. From popsicles to snow cones and from Italian ice to the lesser-known water ice, a local icy treat born and beloved in Philadelphia. Similar to Italian ice but with a strong regionality, water ice made its way to the city of brother love via Italian immigrants, who created a new version of granita, the Sicilian treat from thousands of years ago.

Water ice is traditionally made with just three basic ingredients: water, sugar, and fruit. The process consists of adding flavor to water, then freezing it using a machine and meticulously ensuring precise ice crystal formation. Water ice's texture is fine, soft, and smooth, usually served in cups with a spoon -- not a straw, don't mistake this for a slushie. The result is a refreshing, sweet treat often referred to as "wooder ice" if spoken in the local dialect. You can find it offered in flavors like lemon, mango, chocolate, and many more.

Read more: Ranking 32 Ice Cream Flavors From Worst To Best

How Water Ice Compares To Shaved Ice

bowls of shaved ice
bowls of shaved ice - kai keisuke/Shutterstock

Do you feel like you need a diagram to sort out the differences between water ice, Italian ice, shaved ice, and so on? It can be tricky to keep straight because, believe it or not, there are plenty of subtle but important differences between each cold treat. One of the biggest distinctions is texture. Water ice's texture is smoother and finer than shaved ice, which has more of a rough, ice-chip consistency.

Speaking of which, if you were wondering what the difference is between shaved ice and a snow cone, it again comes down to texture. Shaved ice is finer and fluffier, whereas snow cones tend to be crunchy and made from tiny pellets of crushed ice. Just don't confuse water ice with either of them. Shaved ice and snow cones are both doused in syrupy flavors after the ice is ground. Water ice, on the other hand, gets its flavor addition right at the start, before the water is frozen and shaved down.

How Water Ice Compares To Italian Ice

Rita's Italian ice
Rita's Italian ice - Khairil Azhar Junos/Shutterstock

Though it has a different name and a decidedly lesser cult following, the more commonly known Italian ice is virtually the same treat. There is some debate over the specifics of the terms, but many refer to the two icy concoctions interchangeably. For all intents and purposes, the treats are one and the same, but the vernacular of water ice is certainly a Philly-specific distinction.

The well-known chain Rita's Italian Ice actually originated as Rita's Water Ice when a retired Philadelphia firefighter opened the first shop in the 80s. At some point, the establishment changed its name but has continued to help spread the same refreshing treat from coast to coast with locations in 30 states.

For water ice in its most authentic form, of course, it's worth scooping up the real thing at its birthplace, where folks are proud of the local treat and have been making it for generations. The mass-produced, pre-packaged Italian ice in the grocery store freezer section will cool you off but can't compare to the real thing made on the spot. Alongside the historic landmarks, the famed cheesesteaks, and the booming culinary scene, a smooth, refreshing cup of water ice is one more reason to visit Philly.

Read the original article on Tasting Table.