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May 30, 2017

John's Water Ice: How it's made, how it's different and why rolled ice cream is no threat

Food & Drink Water Ice
John's Water Ice south philly Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

An employee scoops water ice for a customer at John's Water Ice on April 21, 2016.

A staple, tradition or institution – whatever you call it, there's no debate that John's Water Ice is innately a Philly thing.

The family-owned shop at Seventh and Christian streets in South Philadelphia has been in business since 1945, and as it heads into the 2017 summer season, there's not much changing – and that's a part of its appeal, third-generation owner Anthony Cardullo told PhillyVoice recently.

  • Dati's Homemade Water Ice & Ice Cream, 2235 S. Hemberger St.
  • Rose's Real Italian Water Ice, 4240 Pechin St.
  • Jimmy's Water Ice, 2251 S. Front St.
  • Pop's Homemade Water Ice, 1337 Oregon Ave.
  • Tranzilli's Real Italian Water Ice, 5901 Belfield Ave. 

Cardullo, 39, who started his water ice career cutting lemons in the shop when he was 8 years old, is excited for the coming months. John's Water Ice gets up to 600 people at its street-side counter on any given day during the summer, he said. 

"On a hot day, people want water ice," Cardullo said. "When it gets over 90 [degrees], people don't want to put ice cream in them."


John's Water Ice only has four flavors from which to choose: lemon, cherry, pineapple and chocolate. The latter two were introduced by Cardullo's father and uncle nearly two decades ago.

There also are special flavors available on weekends that customers can find out about through the business' Facebook page. Some, including strawberry and mango, quickly rise in popularity. Though, it's apparently not enough for them to become permanent fixtures.

Thom Carroll/PhillyVoice

John's Water Ice, at Seventh and Christian streets in South Philly, has been open since 1945.

Cardullo, who took over in 1997, said the secret to his business' success is its simple recipe – just water, sugar and fresh-squeezed fruit. John's Water Ice has an assorted number of ice cream flavors from which to choose, too.

"We do everything all natural," he said. "The only syrup I bring in is the chocolate."

As for new water ice flavors? Cardullo said he gets requests all the time.

"We're always experimenting with something," he said. "It was lime last year. This year it's white grape, but I'm not sure how flavorful that will be."


While it's known as Italian ice in other parts of the country, Cardullo said he really has no idea how water ice became the official dessert of Philadelphia.

He even finds the frozen treat difficult to describe, but Cardullo's best shot is that water ice is like "non-dairy ice cream." It has a "creamy consistency," unlike the granular texture of a snow cone where syrup is poured overtop to give it flavor.

Since the recipe lacks egg or cream, water ice's smooth texture is achieved by how it's made.

When Anthony's grandfather John Cardullo first opened the business more than 70 years ago, he made the treat by hand-cranking the water ice in a wooden barrel and selling it on the street.

Today, Anthony Cardullo has multiple stainless steel machines to do that work for him. The recipe starts with the fruit, then comes the water and sugar while a blade shaves the ice and an arm stirs to keep the consistency.


It was just a few years ago that the fro-yo craze swept across the United States, seemingly dotting every street corner with a new frozen yogurt shop. But it's a fad that some say died after the market became oversaturated. 

Now, the newest trend in frozen desserts is rolled ice cream.

The dessert originated in Thailand but is catching on in the U.S. with Philadelphia's first store, Sweet Charlie's at Seventh and Walnut streets, opening just last year. Since then , Philly's gotten Ice Land, 10th Street near Vine Street; Ice Max at Second and South streets; Frozen Ice Cream, Ninth and Arch streets; and several others.

Thai rolled ice cream is made with a milky base that's poured on a cold metal circle, garnished with toppings and hand-rolled in front of the customer.

"I actually haven't tried it yet," Cardullo said. "From what I can see, it looks like it looks better than it actually tastes. I don't know how much flavor can be in ice cream that's flash frozen."

Cardullo's not that concerned about rolled ice cream treats cutting into his piece of the frozen dessert market.

"I always kind of worry about [those trends]," he said, "but I always see same 40 people here every day."