Frozen and sweet and never out of season: Jen Johnson describes the local favorites
Granted, ice cream is not the most seasonal dessert to be discussing in mid-November in the Northeast. Don’t worry, though; these local favorites are unlikely to go belly-up before the warm days occur, as far off as they might currently appear. Whether you prefer your frozen desserts in a cone or a cup, familiar or exotic, super sweet and creamy or with a Bifidus tang, Philadelphia has an option for you. Below is a collection of local favorites, including two suggestions that won’t take you further than Ridley or Media.
Begin at the beginning. Bassett’s was the first commercial ice cream company in the United States. They began churning in 1861, and opened their Reading Terminal Market location in 1885. It’s the original, and at lunchtime on a weekday, there’s always a line to the counter for a scoop. Bassett’s carries traditional flavors — chocolate, vanilla, and the like — and traditional blends: moose tracks, rocky road, fudge brownie, pralines & cream, etc. They do serve sorbets and frozen yogurts as well, but don’t come here looking for anything wilder than cinnamon ice cream or champagne sorbet. If you want mojito sorbet, go to Capogiro (see below). If you want history with your ice cream (or a cornucopia of lunch options within a stone’s throw), there is a place for you at Bassett’s counter. 45 N 12th St, in Reading Terminal Market.
There are several places in Philly to find good ice cream. For gelato, Capogiro is the standard bearer, and the only reason to eat any other gelato is price (with tax, $4.86 for a standard two-flavor small). The servers don’t skimp, though — with the mound, that little cup holds about twice its actual volume. Capogiro makes all of their gelato fresh, constantly, and they have the business to support it. They also source many of their ingredients locally, including milk from Lancaster county creameries and cranberries from New Jersey bogs. As a result, the flavors change with the seasons. As the owner put it recently on the CapoBlog, “We roast and grind nuts, we burn sugar, we melt chocolate, we candy rinds, we drive out to the farms and pick up raw milk from a single closed herd of grass fed cows. We make it by hand EVERY FREAKING MORNING! ANDDD.We do all this stuff in small batches. 1.3 gallon batches to be exact. Oh, did I mention that we stick to the seasons and refuse to buy crappy strawberries in February. Yeah. We do.” If you like to kill time by looking at pictures of baby animals online, check out their blog: http://capogirogelatoartisans.blogspot.com/. Capogiro also makes gelato cakes and carries some light lunch fare and other local confections; the location on the edge of the University of Pennsylvania is fully licensed. Three locations (excluding from Manayunk): 119 S 13th St. and 117 S. 20th St. (Center City); 1625 E. Passyunk Ave. (South Philly), 3925 Walnut St. (University City).
The Franklin Fountain
The Franklin Fountain is getting a good sell in The Phoenix this semester. This turn-of-the-(20th)-century-styled soda fountain & ice cream parlor is mostly about the ice cream, but it’s also one of Philadelphia’s only sources for the sodas your grandparents drank, sold individually in their classic glass bottles with their old-school painted labels. Like Capogiro, Franklin Fountain uses only the best ingredients, sourced locally when possible. On a nice evening, the lines are lengthy, but friendly. On a cold day, you shouldn’t have trouble browsing the menu board within the shelter of the small parlor. Bring a couple of friends and split one of the large sundaes ($10-$12), or enjoy a college ice ($6 for a small ice cream with one topping) with hot fudge sauce coating the bottom and drizzled on top. Just get something with hot fudge sauce on it. 116 Market St.
There are Asian frozen yogurt places, American “frozen yogurt” places, hip frozen yogurt places and knock-off frozen yogurt places in Center City, all within a mile of each other. Yogorino, an Italian company with a presence in (apparently) almost 30 countries, wins the battle for the hearts and dollars of Philadelphians with little contest. This is purist stuff: straight up, probiotic-full frozen yogurt — not too tart — professionally swirled into the classic soft-serve peak, and topped at your request with sauces, fruits, and many of the other usual suspects. The straciatella and toblerone sauces harden on contact with the cold yogurt, creating an arabesque of crisp chocolate reminiscent of the Dairy Queen dipped cones of childhood. A small will satisfy for under $5. 233 S 20th St, and now at 1205 Walnut St as well.
John’s Water Ice and Italiano’s
Water ice is a mid-Atlantic cultural phenomenon, and South Philly might be its spiritual center of gravity. If you’ve never heard of it before (although chances are you have if you’ve spent at least one year at Swarthmore), the combination of water and ice and the addition of at least a touch of the South Philly accent, causing it to come out as something like wooder ice might lead an unsuspecting West Coast kid to think it was some regional perversion of ice water. In the oppressive heat of late August, ice water and water ice are both reasonable causes for excitement. John’s and Italiano’s are both South Philly originals and South Philly favorites. Italiano’s departs from local competition by serving a firmer, more ice-cream-like gelati as an addition to their water ice. Piña colada is one of their most popular flavors. John’s Water Ice, at 7th and Christian near the Italian Market, doesn’t offer many flavors (four or five for water ice, four or five for ice cream), but it does them well, especially the pineapple. John’s Water Ice, 701 Christian St., Philadelphia; Italiano’s, 2551 S. 12th St., Philadelphia.
The most accessible place to find water ice at any time of year is just off of the Baltimore Pike, in Media, at the local branch of Rita’s Water Ice, an area-original that has grown into a national chain. Ask someone from New Jersey or eastern Pennsylvania their opinion of Rita’s and what they recommend; by most accounts, it’s not the most authentic. But on the first day of spring every year (March 20th in 2012), Rita’s gives away free regular-size water ices to anyone who comes looking. That, at least, is worth the trip. 220 S. Providence Road; also in Granite Run Mall, 1067 W. Baltimore Pike.
Nifty Fifty’s is a local chain, with a total of five locations spread across southeast Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey. The 1950’s diner atmosphere of this place is almost over the top: every inch of the interior of this burger-and-shakes joint is covered in chrome, white & black checks or red pleather except the smooth, white linoleum of the table tops. The kitchen is at the center, surrounded by a lunch counter, with booth tables lining the outside wall. Which neon sign will you find yourself under? Nifty Fifty’s and the Franklin Fountain are separated by at least 40 years of nostalgia, but comparisons of their historical theme choices are the only ones you should draw. Nifty Fifty’s is closer (but you’ll need a car), cheaper, kitschier and more raucous. And a darn good time. If the walls could talk, they probably couldn’t remember how many college students have come here late at night, four in the back seat and two in the trunk of a friend’s hatchback. 1900 MacDade Blvd.
(For dairy-free options: Capogiro, Bassett’s and the Franklin Fountain all offer their interpretations of sorbet. Fruit flavors of water ice are also typically dairy-free.)
For more information about train tickets, maps and directions, as well as more recommendations of places to eat, shop and explore, please check out the In-Town, Off-campus column.