This month’s Old School Spotlight shines on a family-run business in South Philly that’s been servin’ up a taste of summer since the depths of the Great Depression.
As the temperatures climb back into the high-90s (hopefully for the last time this year), there’s one business that’ll help folks keep their cool the same way they have since the 1932: Pop’s Water Ice.
“Pop” was Filippo Italiano. After emigrating from his native Calabria, Italy with his wife, Teresa Scutella, Filippo worked in the Navy Yard. When the Depression hit, he found he needed extra income to make ends meet to feed his six children. Filippo turned to a tasty desert he knew from Italy: granita – crushed ice mixed with fresh fruit, juice, or fruit puree. Philadelphians called this chilly treat “water ice.” It’s also known as Italian ice. Water ice is a combination of sugar, water and various fruits blended together to a smooth consistency. This is different from other ice treats (like snow cones) which are shaved ice with syrup poured on top.
Filippo started his water ice business from a push-cart he stationed at Marconi Plaza, right across the street from the current location. He would shave the ice and add the fruit by hand. The options were limited: cherry, lemon, plus whatever fruit was in season.
Filippo eventually expanded into the current 1337 Oregon Avenue location, a former garage. Granddaughter Linda Raffa recalls how he produced water ice in the garage, “with a round wooden machine that used chopped ice, rock salt, a towel and a hand crank.” In the 1950s the first electric water ice machines came along. Filippo purchased one which is still used in the store. This allowed him to expand the store’s regular flavor offerings to include chocolate and pineapple.
“The whole family helped out with the business. Pop’s six children helped mix the flavors around the dinner table,” Linda recounts. Later, his grandchildren helped out each summer. Linda remembers how, as a teenager, she would be ready to go out with her friends. Her mother would prompt her: “It’s a hot night, grandpop’s going to be busy…he sure could use some help.”
Pop ran the shop until he was 85. He still remained active in the business after that. He would sit on the front step, watching his grandchildren who were home from college and scooping water ice. If they weren’t moving the line fast enough, he’d wave his finger and tell them to pick up the pace.
After Pop’s passing in 1987 at age 92, the grandchildren took over the business. Each brings a different skill set to the business: Linda is an accountant; cousin Phil is an attorney; cousin Michael is the sales manager in charge of inventory. They all do their part to keep the workload balanced.
In 1988 the family renovated the garage into a finished building. They slowly added new flavors: piña colada, root beer, vanilla. Watermelon was tested in 1990 and added to the menu the following year. Banana debuted in 1991. Today, over 20 flavors are offered, some seasonally.
Despite the delicious variety, Linda says, “When it’s 90 degrees and humid, our best seller is the original lemon, by far! When the weather is a little more mild, it’s chocolate.”
The family prides itself on using the freshest ingredients. In early July, when the peaches are ripe, bushels start arriving at the store from Elmer, New Jersey peach groves. “Every year folks just wait for it,” says Linda. As fall nears, the pumpkin-spice flavored water ice starts to fly out of the store. Yes, pumpkin-spice water ice.
In addition to the secret to great water ice, Pop taught his family to be charitable. Linda recalls the time Filippo made batches of water ice in the dead of winter to help a woman suffering from throat cancer who had difficulty swallowing. The shop’s charitable work includes donating water ice to a myriad of different causes and even helping neighbors with medical bills.
Pop’s Water Ice opens for the season around March 1st (depending on the weather) and closes around the Columbus Day Parade (early October).
- Spring hours: 7 days a week 11 a.m. until 9 p.m.
- Summer hours: 11 a.m. to 11 p.m.
- After Labor Day, 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Check their Facebook page or website for more details.
Insider advice: for a special treat, try the chocolate-covered frozen bananas!