The Best Italian Ice Is Frozen in Time
Founded a century ago, Di Cosmo's Italian Ice in Elizabeth, New Jersey, still makes its famed frozen dessert the exact same way it did in 1915. The neighborhood may have changed, but the ice remains the same.
Illustration by Yuliya Tsoy.
On a long, hot summer day precisely one hundred years ago, Caterina Di Cosmo grew nostalgic for her hometown in Italy. She decided to try beating the heat by recreating the granitas (granular blends of sugar, ice, and flavoring) she so fondly remembered from her childhood back in the old country. Made not by adding flavor to ice, but by freezing a liquid concoction while mixing it, granitas—like many popular frozen desserts—originated in Sicily, and have since spread around the world.
Caterina's first batch came out smooth (far less granular than a typical granita) and creamy (despite containing no dairy), with the sweet/tart taste of sugared, fresh-squeezed lemon juice and a crisp, cooling mouthfeel. Shared among family, friends, and the regular customers at her small grocery in an Italian-American enclave in Elizabeth, New Jersey, called Peterstown, it was an immediate hit. In time, Caterina's "Italian Ice" would become locally famous. Her husband Giovanni eventually decided to build a small shack next to their house—made from salvaged wood crates and pallets—wholly dedicated to producing and selling the product.
A century later, the house and the shop remain in the family. While the ice needed to make each day's supply no longer arrives via horse and carriage in a 300-pound block, and hand-cranking has long since been replaced by a small electric machine, the modern-day Di Cosmo family otherwise follows Caterina's original recipe—right down to serving and storing their ices in the same 100-year-old barrels.
And on a hot day, eager customers still start lining up for a taste long before they open for business.
"It's truly a labor of love," said Nancy Di Cosmo, who married into the family in 1969 and has been helping run the operation with her husband John ever since. "It would be a whole lot easier to open up a bottle of pre-made artificial flavor syrup and pour that in, but the taste is not going to be there. And people wouldn't keep coming back with their children and grandchildren."
Instead, Nancy and John (the third generation of Di Cosmos to helm the operation) start each morning with a fresh delivery of fruit and juices from local New Jersey suppliers, with no preservatives, concentrates, artificial flavors, or corn syrup allowed. For many years, the stand sold only lemon ice, but now they offer a rotating lineup of around two dozen flavors—though they only make three or four per day due to the time and effort involved. They're also limited by whatever fruit happens to be in season and by the capacity of their old-school equipment, which allows for just five gallons of finished ice per batch. So if you show up when the doors open at noon, they'll only have one flavor ready, with John still hard at work in the back preparing the rest of the day's menu.
Sicily's readily available supply of snow led to a series of frozen dessert innovations long before the advent of mechanical refrigeration.
First, the fresh fruit must be zested, sliced, and juiced by hand. Then they add real cane sugar and churn the mixture to a consistency "like mashed potatoes" before pouring it into a stainless steel sleeve nestled inside a wooden barrel full of ice and rock salt. This "salt brining" lowers the freezing point of the ice, so the finished product maintains an ideal temperature throughout the day.
"We make our ices without any refrigeration, stabilizers—even natural ones—or sticky gums," Nancy said, "So that brining system keeps it at a temperature cold enough to prevent melting, but not so cold that it hardens up."
All of which may seem like an awful lot of effort to make a "simple" summer treat, but it pales in comparison to Italian ice's earliest origins in Sicily, when the Roman emperor Nero (circa 60 AD) would make his slaves run snow down from the top of Mount Etna in a relay in order to cool his drinks. According to a detailed history by Saveur's Mary Taylor Simeti, Sicily's readily available supply of snow (and the island's rich multicultural history of being conquered and colonized) led to a series of frozen dessert innovations long before the advent of mechanical refrigeration.
"Greek and Roman colonists cooled their wine with Etna's snow," Simeti wrote. "Arabs, who arrived in the 10th century bringing cane sugar and citrus fruits, put snow in their lemonade … But when and where, exactly, did naturally iced water become man-made water ice? Food historians now believe that it was probably sometime around 1650 and someplace in Italy that the ancient love of drinks cooled by natural snow or ice met the scientific knowledge of the endothermic effect—the rule of physics that makes it possible to freeze a liquid through conduction."
'When my wife and I first started dating, I said to her, You've got to come with me to Elizabeth and try this lemon ice,' said Tom Colicchio.
By the late 1600s, this salt-and-ice technique "passed from the laboratory to the kitchen," paving the way for the invention of granitas, sorbetti (ices churned smooth like Di Cosmo's Italian Ice), and sorbetti con crema (ices with dairy added, a gelato precursor). In those days, only the richest among the aristocracy could afford such luxuries, but the Italian-American take on ices has always been priced low enough to bring in laborers like my grandfather, who lived most of his life in Peterstown, and counted among Di Cosmo's earliest and longest-running customers.
My mother had the good fortune to grow up around the block from the popular neighborhood meeting place; for me, no visit to my grandparents between April and September was ever complete until we'd stopped in for Italian Ice and a long chat with the happy crowd assembled outside. In fact, delighting in a freshly made container of lemon ice ranks among my own earliest and fondest childhood memories. And I'm not the only one.
"To me, summer wasn't complete unless I was there at least once a week," celebrity chef and Elizabeth native Tom Colicchio told me. "When my wife and I first started dating, I said to her, 'You've got to come with me to Elizabeth and try this lemon ice.' It's something that's just such a part of my childhood that I couldn't imagine my life without it. When I was growing up, that's when food first started becoming really commercialized, processed foods became a lot more prevalent, and this was something that was fresh. If you got other Italian ice or push pops somewhere else, it was artificial. And then here's something made right on the spot that tastes real. It made me say, 'Wow, this is different.' And that's why everybody who grew up eating it still goes back for more."
With those words in mind, and to properly celebrate the centennial of this beloved cultural institution, I decided to organize a pilgrimage back to the old neighborhood with my mother, sister, niece, and nephew in tow. As we waited for the day's first batch of ice to properly cool, a quick stroll around Peterstown confirmed that most of the original Italian-American families have moved out over the years, but we did find a familiar welcome at Santillo's Pizza, which opened in 1918 and also remains in the same family that founded it. Working with a massive 160-square-foot brick oven originally built for a German bakery, the Santillos have been making "New Jersey's best pizza" for almost a hundred years.
While my mother reminisced with the current generation of master pizziolas, I marveled at the nearly twenty-foot long peels required to pull pies out of the back of that massive oven.
"I was born in here," Al Santillo deadpanned to my niece when she asked how long he'd been making pizzas—a lifetime of tradition and experience that paid tasty dividends when we retired to an "old man bar" a few blocks away to enjoy our Sicilian pie (Santillo's has no seating). Taken in by the perfect crunchy crust, we all indulged in at least one slice too many, unwittingly paving the way for a nice lemon Italian ice to serve as both a tasty dessert and a refreshing palate cleanser.
"It's a wonderful intermezzo, " Nancy told me as we at last sat down to talk over a couple of half-pints. "A lot of people have one before they go eat dinner, and then stop in for another on the way out."
In the middle of hot and hazy weekday, however, most of the customers waiting in line were local firefighters, cops, and sanitation workers treating themselves to a little refreshment on their lunch breaks. Nancy says she still gets regular visits from the neighborhood's remaining Italian-Americans, as well as those among the Peterstown diaspora who travel from far and wide for a taste of home. But what really keeps Di Cosmo's afloat these days is the loyal patronage of a whole new set of newly-arrived families.
"As the Italians left Elizabeth, a wave of immigrants came in from South America," Nancy said, "and we found that all we had to do was add a few tropical flavors—like coconut and mango—and they love it as much as the Italian immigrants did. I think the product is accessible and appealing to anyone—all age groups, any ethnicity. Everybody likes to get cooled down in the summer and what's better than a frozen, real-fruit, treat?"
My niece and nephew enthusiastically agreed with this assessment, prompting Nancy to add that her 14 grandchildren should guarantee a long future for the Di Cosmos in the Italian Ice game.
"As little as they are, at ten years old they're already putting ice around the barrel, helping in little ways," she says. "So you can tell your family that there will probably be some younger version of me out here doing it for another hundred years."