Sunday, May 5, 2013


It’s often a hundred and twelve degrees here in the Valley. For years, I’d spend much of the day working outside, reflecting that the cliché was true—it is a dry heat. Like a kiln. By the time I’d collapse on my couch, I’d feel as dried out as a clay pot, and as fragile.

On Arizona summer days like this, I would lament the lack of a cure readily available to citizens of my beloved home town of Erie, Pennsylvania: Rita’s Italian Ice, in my never-very-humble opinion America’s greatest frozen dessert chain. Why, I’d wonder, was this chilly ambrosia not available out here in the sweltering land of the Zonies, where we could really use it? But almost two years ago, I became aware that a few Rita’s franchises had indeed opened around the Phoenix area.

The dish we call Italian Ice—or sometimes, rather redundantly, “water ice”—comes by its name honestly; it really does go way back in Italian history. It’s claimed that Nero himself would send slaves to the mountaintops near the Eternal City to collect snow, which would then be hustled back to the feast and mixed with fruit and other sweeteners. Back in dear old Erie, at least during the brief summers, we never had to resort to such hassles to enjoy this refreshing treat.

We just had to betake ourselves to the Rita’s on Gore Road, just off upper Peach Street, and walk up to the little window, and for a ridiculously low price a sweet-faced teenage girl would hand us a cup of Italian Ice fit for a Roman Emperor. If it was a particularly lucky day, the menu would include Wild Black Cherry. If so, I might buy a large, and sit on the concrete step and luxuriate in the scrumptious flavor and the humid but comparatively pleasant Pennsylvania afternoon. The sign at Rita’s reads “Ice Custard Happiness,” and I’d be hard pressed to disagree.

Rita’s menu has, within its limited scope of cool treats, a lot of variety. A dozen or so different flavors of ice are offered, some daily, others every few days, along with chocolate or vanilla soft-serve custards—my ten-year-old favors the chocolate, straight up. These may be blended with the ice for a “Misto” drink, or for a “Blendini,” which may be topped with Reese’s cups, M&Ms, Oreos and other such goodies.

Polluting pure, innocent Italian ice in this manner is acceptable for a little kid, I suppose, but for an adult it’s an appalling vulgarity. The same goes for some of the queasy, gimmicky flavors of ice that show up under Rita’s glass from time to time, like Swedish Fish or Red Velvet Cake or Cotton Candy or Peeps. Don’t misunderstand; Peeps are the greatest Easter candy ever invented, but delicious as they are, they aren’t what you’d normally call refreshing.

I always make a point of asking for a sample of these freaky, rich flavors when I see one I haven’t encountered before, and the gracious staff always obliges me with a tiny cupful and a tiny spoon. Every time, I have the same reaction—that they taste amazingly like what they’re called, in frozen liquid form, and that while one taste is a delight, a whole cup would be oppressive to a mature palate.

Not every adult shares this view, however. Asked to name his favorite flavor, Zach Cobian, co-owner of the Tempe Rita’s at McClintock and Elliot, says “Birthday Cake. I don’t even like sweet things all that much, but for some reason I love it.”

Well, enjoy to your heart’s content. But after I sample such kid stuff, I then buy what I came in for—Wild Black Cherry. Make no mistake, even among Rita’s flavors it’s a stunner—deeply sweet but not cloying, and studded with fleshy bits of real cherry. Indeed, while in a pinch I’ll settle for Rita’s standard non-wild Cherry, or Mango, or Juicy Pear, or “Alex’s Lemonade,” I rarely go into the place unless I’ve been informed by email that the Wild Black Cherry is on the menu that day. When it is, I usually buy a couple of quarts to take home and freeze—it’s very revivable by means of a microwave zap and some patient stirring. There are four quarts of it my freezer at this writing.

One minor warning, however: Wild Black Cherry will turn your lips and tongue a gory, arterial scarlet. If I was directing a vampire movie, I would make the actors eat it between takes.

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