Friday, February 25, 2011

Heart of the City: Pop's Water Ice

By: C.G. Morelli

Most of my love for the game of baseball can be traced back to a single, humid July evening in Philadelphia in 1982. That’s when my father showed me a pair of Phillies season tickets and explained we’d be going to Veteran’s Stadium for my first baseball game. From that very first walk down the heavy, concrete steps which led to section 325, peanut shells crackling beneath my Velcro sneakers, the smell of stale beer and shouts of “Hey Schmidty!” floating through the air, and a curious green mascot dancing around on the rooftop of the first base dugout, I was hooked.

Today, I can’t remember many details of the actual game. There was just so much for me to take in; I guess the game itself sort of molded together with the new and exciting surroundings of the Vet. But one thing I remember quite clearly is the moment the game ended. My father leaned over and said, “Now it’s time for the best part…we’re going to Pop’s.”

At that moment I couldn’t see anything redeeming about going to my grandfather’s row home at 10:30 at night, but I quickly realized my father was instead referring to a South Philadelphia mainstay known as Pop’s Water Ice.

For those of you who have no clue what I’m talking about when I say “water ice,” here’s a quick lesson. If you walk into a supermarket and head to the freezer section, you might find a box of Dixie cups with a rock hard concoction inside. People often like to call this stuff Italian Ice, but it’s actually just a cheap and somewhat embarrassing reproduction of real water ice.

A more authentic alternative to the supermarket stuff comes from a popular chain called Rita’s, which happens to be the leading rip off artist of the Pop’s tradition. Rita’s is decent, but it’s certainly not Pop’s. It often lacks the most satisfying characteristic of a good, refreshing cup of water ice: the fact that you should never need to bother yourself with the use of a spoon. At Pop’s you simply need to squeeze the sides of your cup and basically drink the semi-frozen slush that rises to the top.

It’s the same way people enjoyed the treat as far back as 1932, when Filippo “Pop” Italiano first started selling his water ice from a single push cart in South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza. Seventy-five years later his frozen treats are a staple along Oregon Avenue, in the shadows of Philadelphia’s major sporting venues. The Italiano family has continued Filippo’s tradition, sticking closely to his famously guarded recipe and building a reputation as the perennial winners of the South Philly Review’s Best of Philly Award.

If you don’t believe the hype, simply drive past the Pop’s storefront after a Phillies game and notice the line that routinely trails to the end of the city block and wraps around the corner. Or, try to park your ride anywhere in the vicinity of the famous stand and I guarantee you’ll be sitting in a pile-up of automobiles that runs three-deep to the curb.

In this case, your best bet is to partake in another South Philly tradition and simply park your car on the median. Don’t worry about getting a ticket, because there’s always a good chance the fuzz will be sitting in line waiting for a large cup of lemon water ice and a pretzel rod along with you. 

One thing I’ll tell you is Pop’s Water Ice is not a flashy place, nor is it a huge entertainment complex where you can unload the kids in front of a row of arcade games. The place has really changed little since Pop himself was pushing his cart through Marconi Plaza. But one thing’s for sure, this place has always been a respite for battle-weary Phillies fans to heal their wounds after a tough loss or celebrate the glory of an unlikely victory.

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