Frozen in Time

Frozen in Time

Every autumn, Italian ice shops like Ralph’s and Uncle Louie G’s close their storefronts. The freezer carts in which Marino’s ices are kept disappear from pizzerias. And local Italian ice factories, like Gino’s in Sunset Park, close for winter hibernation. The last licks of Italian ices mark the end of New York summer and have for over half a century.

But every year, tracking down these Italian ices becomes more difficult. Glossy all-glass storefronts replace grungy pizzerias, and white Gino’s signs, with their iconic orange piping around the perimeter, disappear from store windows.

Along with the ices, a certain romantic notion of summertime in Brooklyn is disintegrating as well. Anyone who grew up in Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge, Sheepshead Bay, or any of the other neighborhoods populated after World War II by immigrants — especially Italian immigrants — tell colorful stories of playing stickball in the hot summer sun, to be rewarded in the early evening with trips to corner stores for refreshing Italian ices in thin paper cups in which they licked their favorite flavors — cherry, lemon, vanilla — down to the bottom. This memory of midcentury Brooklyn endures, even if it’s mostly made up.

As publications like the Brooklyn Paper publish features called “Go There Now!,” guiding readers to old-school neighborhood haunts on the brink of going belly-up, and Lost New York City carries on its “Bring Out Your Dead” feature, writing obituaries for beloved New York institutions, it seems it’s only a matter of time before Italian ices are officially put on death watch.

Gino’s, the Brooklyn-based, family-owned Italian ices manufacturer that arguably started it all, has proved particularly maladaptive. In the age of all artisanal everything, its claim to authenticity may not be enough to save an old New York favorite from joining Ray’s Pizza on the list of culinary institutions outsmarted and outlasted by imitators.

Historians debate whether shaved ice desserts originated in China or Persia. There’s even a story floating around Italy that Emperor Nero sent servants into the foothills to chill his wines and that, one cold day, a servant’s mishap resulted in a frozen beverage and the very first water-ice. What historians do know is that Arabs used mountain snow and fruit juice to make sharbat, a likely ancestor to sorbet. Experts extrapolate that these Arab innovators introduced flavored ice desserts into Sicily and southern Italy. Sicilian granita, which is slushier than sorbet, is the closest current relative to the original sharbat and, in its smoother forms, is a dead ringer for what Brooklynites know as Italian ice.

Iced desserts were initially for the wealthy. By the late eighteenth century, ice cream in southern Italy was available to anyone of any class who needed refuge from the brutal summer heat. After a trip to Naples, English travel writer Henry Swinburne wrote, “The passion for iced water is so great and so general in Naples that none but mere beggars would drink it in its natural state; and, I believe, a scarcity of bread would not be more severely felt than a failure of snow.”

Italian ices as we’ve come to know them, though, began as street food in New York and, in fact, have little to do with southern Italian granita. What we know as New York Italian ice became popular on the East Coast in the 1940s and swept westward, reaching as far as California by the 1960s.

It doesn’t take much to whip up Italian ice. At Gino’s, the ingredients — water, sugar, and pulverized fruit — are first mixed in giant vats. Next the mixture is placed into a batch-freezer, which typically makes up to 24 quarts. A batch freezer’s guts resemble those of a washing machine; a large rotating blade stirs the slushy ice as the machine chills the mixture, using cooling coils built into the casing. When the mixture is near ready but still on the soft side, an operator opens the gate at the bottom of the machine and lets the too-liquid mixture pile into Gino’s signature golden cans. Only then is it sent to a subzero freezer to harden. The whole process is quick, taking no more than fifteen to 30 minutes from beginning to end.

Gino’s has been making Italian ices and stocking the freezers of New York restaurants for decades. “To me, the word ‘Gino’s’ is invisible in most places they have it — the ‘Gino’s’ just means Italian ices,” said Scott Wiener, owner and tour guide of Scott’s Pizza Tours in New York City. By the end of the 20th century, iconic orange-bordered signs had appeared in the windows of pizzerias and Italian restaurants across the city.

The company began as — and remains — a small operation. The brand’s namesake, Gino Broncanelli, came to America from Sicily in 1955. After several years working construction and textile factory jobs, he started making Italian ices with his wife at an empty lot next to his Brooklyn home. By 1968, he purchased a pizzeria on Long Island and expanded the business to include his brother Tony, who helped with the ices business, and his son, Emilio, who would later run the Long Island location of the pizzeria. Tony and Emilio later backed out of the ices business and opted to own pizzerias instead.

Giovanni Grano, the company’s current plant manager, did not return calls seeking an interview, but two young women were recently granted access to Gino’s factory alongside Grano and wrote a blog post about their experience. In their account, Grano, who has been at the factory in Sunset Park, Brooklyn for over 40 years, worked his way up from ices delivery boy to now managing the company’s five other employees. He makes sure Gino’s runs smoothly and stays in business.

In the eyes of some, Gino’s owes its success to its quality. Some pizzeria owners, like Nino of Nino’s Pizza, who has owned his shop at the corner of St. Marks and Avenue A for almost 30 years and has been selling Gino’s for just as long, thinks Gino’s is the best product available. Grano claims that the difference between Gino’s and its competitors is that Gino’s uses only the most expensive ingredients, the most common of which are lemons, cocoa powder, and vanilla. Unlike other shops, he boasts, Gino’s does not use any artificial ingredients. The result is a simple product, and one that comes in only eleven flavors: lemon, cherry, chocolate, rainbow, piña colada, coconut, mango, vanilla chip, Oreo cookie, blueberry, and watermelon. (Rainbow and vanilla chip are most popular.)

Founder and leader of Famous Fat Dave’s Five Borough Eating Tours, David Freedenberg, described Gino’s as “the gold standard,” adding, “When you order Italian ice, you can assume it’ll be Gino’s unless otherwise stated.” Kirk Vartan, a New York native and owner of two pizzerias in Sunnyvale and San Jose, California, both called A Slice of New York, described Gino’s as “the nice version of Marino’s.” Marino’s, in this writer’s experience, are rock-hard, with the layer of frozen sugar at the bottom that to be eaten must be scraped and dislodged with a wooden stick.

Vartan’s customers in California clamor for Gino’s, which are most often served straight out of freezer-cart tubs. Customers enjoy scoops in flimsy paper cups that disintegrate before the ices are finished. Vartan even had to institute a two-scoop-per-person quota when he first started selling Gino’s.

But Gino’s is expensive, Vartan lamented. Not to mention that ices are temperamental because they’re water-based, he says. “If you keep it really cold at ice cream temperatures, it gets hard as a rock, and then you can’t scoop it. If you keep it at a warmer temperature, it melts and separates. It needs to be in between 15 to 18 degrees.” Transporting the ices from factory to store might mean losing some of the batch along the way. And according to Grano, Gino’s is sold as far as California, Florida, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania.

Vartan has put up with the expense and the hassle, though, because Gino’s captures a time and place — Italian Brooklyn after World War II — and grants access to anyone with a mouth and a dollar.

Though Gino’s does not look like the original granita, the Italian influences are felt and perpetuated with each scoop. Though food — or, rather, lack thereof — often spurred migration from Italy, migration had a profound impact on the food itself, which became woven into the fabric of what it meant to be an Italian immigrant living in America.

There were two waves of Italian immigration to New York. In her book 97 Orchard, Jane Ziegelman, the director of the culinary program at the Tenement Museum on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, notes that an 1860 census counted 12,000 Italian-born immigrants in the United States. These first-wave immigrants were mostly from northern Italian areas like Liguria and Piedmont. These included artists, musicians, teachers, doctors, and other professionals.

What most New Yorkers think of as “New York Italian” grew out of the second wave, which consisted of southern Italian immigrants, mostly from Basilicata, Calabria, and Sicily. Contrary to the northerners who came before them, these immigrants were largely uneducated, poor, and illiterate, says Ziegelman. They had mostly been peasant farmers. Because of these traits, immigration officials dubbed them “America’s worst immigrants” and described them as “lazy, ignorant, and clannish.”

They also arrived in large numbers. In the 1880s, the number of Italian immigrants entering the United States exploded. What started at 55,000 immigrants in 1880 grew to 300,000 by the end of the decade. They poured into the Five Points area, glamorized by movies like Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York; the adjoining Eighth Ward; and, eventually, Brooklyn. By the 1920s, stringent quota laws, born of both prejudice and a fear of overcrowding, restricted further Italian immigration.

An 1892 piece in the New York Times captured the mood: “Americans are pretty well agreed that the immigration from Italy is very largely of a kind which we are better without.” Ziegelman writes that Italians arriving in America “knew they were unwanted and were often denied jobs or paid less because of discrimination alone.”

To deflect the animosity and bias, Italian communities turned inwards. According to Donna Gabaccia, professor at the University of Minnesota and author of We Are What We Eat and From Sicily to Elizabeth Street, who specializes in studying the foodways of Italians and other immigrant populations in the United States, insularity allowed them to carry on with native traditions in relative peace. They would, for the most part, all inhabit the same neighborhoods, where they did not need to feel pressured to speak English and where they could locate familiar foods, providing some semblance of comfort in the new and increasingly unwelcoming home in the United States.

French food had long been accepted in the United States as an imported cuisine, but Americans took longer to warm to Italian food. But, according to Gabaccia, by the 1930s, Italian restaurants were in vogue, helping bridge the divide between immigrants and others and inching the cultural climate nearer to the pluralistic New York — and American — cuisine we know today.

Once Italian immigrants got their footing in Manhattan after World War II, they expanded outward and scattered across Brooklyn, from Carroll Gardens to Bensonhurst. It’s this Italian Brooklyn that made its way into countless movies, from Saturday Night Fever to Goodfellas, and out of which were born nostalgic stories recalling the sweltering afternoons playing with Spaldeens and slurping down Italian ices.

In the ensuing years, Italian ices became inextricably linked to the culture of New York City pizzerias. Gino’s, for instance, has developed a symbiotic relationship with New York’s slice joints and sells to them almost exclusively. “That’s tradition: the slice and ice,” Dino Russo, a Bensonhurst native who owns an Italian ice competitor to Gino’s named Uncle Louie G’s, told me. “We were just raised on that when we were kids. We’d always go down to Bow Wow on Cross Bay Boulevard.”

Wiener, the founder of Scott’s Pizza Tours, cited both economic and sentimental reasons that the ices ended up in pizzerias. First, they’re cheap and don’t require much in the way of equipment or store space. He noted that Ben’s Pizza uses the same real estate in the store for ices in the summer and soups in the winter.

Italian ices and slices of pizza are also equally economical for consumers. “I mean, where else can you go with a family of four for a nice treat for $10 total?” Russo asked. Wiener recalls growing up in New Jersey and eating Little Jimmy’s lemon ice out of paper cups. “The end of the school year when the guy parks outside of school with the Italian ices truck was the best ever. It’s the perfect complement to pizza, too — it balances out the hot, salty pizza with a perfect, refreshing palate cleanser.”

And like Italian ices, New York pizza is tied to the narrative of the Italian immigrant experience in the city. Wiener and Freedenberg, with their pizza tours, are able to earn livings telling the histories of notable pizzerias to out-of-towners, giving them physical and metaphorical slices of an emblematic New York. (For Wiener, it’s Staten Island, not Brooklyn, that’s a “game preserve” for pizza, a perfect time capsule to help outsiders understand a particular pizza-rich era in the city’s history.) “My customers like learning more about something [pizza] they already know so well,” he said. “It’s like suddenly learning the dark past of your childhood best friend.”

Vartan, with his California-transplanted New York pizza, acknowledges that he’s in the taste bud tourism business, too. His clients experience a particular time and place when they walk through the doors of A Slice of New York. “When I opened, we didn’t want to offer just a pizza experience — we wanted to give a New York experience. We used to have Drake’s before Hostess went out of business. We’re also hoping to sell Jamaican beef patties. I was so proud when I was able to put the Gino’s sticker in my window. Anything we can do to bring New York to California. We try to bring people back home.”

Vartan, who grew up on East 56th Street in Manhattan, says he misses New York but stays connected to his upbringing through his pizzeria. Some of his customers do, too. “I met more New Yorkers in the first six months we were open than I had in my first eight years in California.”

Eating Italian ices, says Wiener, isn’t about longing for Italy. “Most didn’t even know how to make pizza in Italy. My favorite background story is from John’s in Elmhurst. They never even had pizza in Rome, where they’re from. They learned what pizza was and how to make it once they came to the United States. What we think of as New York Italian is completely Americanized — the guy with a mustache wearing white serving pizza by the slice. These pizza places usually have the origin point of Naples and the education point of New York.”

It’s not nostalgia for a past in the madrepatria, then, but a longing for an American era — a midcentury Italian immigrant era — that a spoonful of Gino’s summons up. “The idea of the New York Italian pizza place didn’t even exist until World War II. And now it’s already a dying concept,” Wiener says. “We only think we know what it is because of movies from 20 years ago about a culture that existed over half a century ago. It’s the idea of the big greasy slice being an object of affection.” And that sticky, disintegrating cup.

The old-school temperament of Gino’s is reflected in everything from its product’s formula to its methods of doing business. The company factory in Sunset Park has only six employees and two phone numbers to call. (There’s no company email address, and certainly no Facebook page or Twitter feed.) Eagerly seeking an interview, I called fifteen times and left eleven voicemails. I received a call back only after the eleventh voicemail, when I hinted that I might be interested in buying some ices.

Vartan had warned me well in advance about the difficulty of communicating with the company. “They’re seriously old-school. Get this: you tell them what you want, they give you a price, and once the money’s moved to a bank account number they give you, only then can you use their shipping guy — you can’t provide your own because they have a guy who specializes in refrigerated freight,” he said. They’re famously tough to reach. “You have to call early in the day.”

Russo, the owner of competitor Louie G’s, bit back criticism. “I don’t want to talk bad about Gino’s, but they’re definitely their own company. They run it on their own terms. They still use the metal cans and only use water and sugar. They definitely run it their own way.”

For some time, restaurants and grocers wanting to stock Italian ices had other options. One notable alternative is Marino’s, which was founded around the same time as Gino’s. Marino’s Italian Ices is, by several accounts, the most widely sold brand, appearing in Midwestern supermarkets, street vendor pushcarts, and even as far as Shanghai at the company’s China Scoop Shop. Marino’s is easily identified by its small yellow cups with peel-back paper lids and wooden sticks for scraping.

Marino’s was founded by Marinos Vourderis, an immigrant who arrived in America from Greece in the 1930s with 30 cents to his name. His business was originally called the Olympic Ice Cream Company, but after recognizing that he could be more profitable if he aligned himself with “authentic” Italian companies, he renamed the business Marino’s, a name he debuted at the 1964 World’s Fair. When the New York Times profiled him in 1997, it heralded him as the largest purveyor of ices in the metropolitan area and “about as Italian as Zorba the Greek.”

Russo’s company, Uncle Louie G’s, is a newer, higher-end player in this market, and it, too, is playing up a certain Italian shtick. The company’s mascot — Uncle Louie G, presumably — is a mustachioed man dressed in white and wearing a bowtie. Its ices happen to be Vartan’s favorite. “They have a chocolate ice with Joyva jelly rings chopped up in it. It is one of the best things I have had.” It’s Freedenberg’s favorite, too.

If you find your way to Uncle Louie G’s website — they have one, unlike Gino’s — you’ll find this syrupy ode to the past: “Think back to 1959, in Brooklyn, New York. Close your eyes for just a minute and imagine yourself in the old neighborhood. It is summertime and the temperatures are soaring. Someone has opened the hydrant and all the kids within a three-block radius are all running to get their turn in the cool stream of water. From stickball on the street to sitting on the stoop, out of all the memories, the one treat, the ‘treat of all treats,’ the taste that made summer what it was, in all its sweet goodness, was Italian ices.” What halcyon days, before third-wave coffee shops, warehouse parties, and sky-high rents changed Brooklyn culture.

But Uncle Louie G’s was founded in 1999. Russo took over the business from his brother and his friend in 2005, when the company already had 40 stores. (Now, Russo and his three business partners have more than 50.) And customers love the stuff. “We have a nice establishment,” Russo said, nonchalant about the fanfare. “There’s not too much product like ours.” And he’s right. Uncle Louie G’s ices are delicious — better, one’s almost hesitant to say, than Gino’s. Russo himself is jovial and inviting, happy to give tours around the factory and take questions. The company flavor list, which stretches to nearly 50, also dwarfs those of its competitors, and includes varieties that prey on Old Brooklyn nostalgia, ranging from spumoni to Coney Island cotton candy.

“Right now, we sell to over 100 pizzerias and restaurants,” Russo said. “We’re at Great Adventure, Coney Island, and more. We’re starting to sell individual six-ounce cups, and we’re expanding into the pushcart business, too. We want to get into events — weddings, ball games, and soccer games. Arenas and stadiums are next.”

Ralph’s Famous Italian Ices, another major player in the New York Italian ices scene, is another reference point. Ralph Silvestro, an Italian immigrant, started the company in 1928 and by 1949 had a storefront on Port Richmond Avenue in Staten Island. Ralph’s was to Staten Island what Gino’s was to Brooklyn. But Ralph’s has blossomed in a way that Gino’s hasn’t. With a storefront and developing franchise program, Ralph’s expanded rapidly to all five boroughs, Long Island, and New Jersey, while its bulk shipping business stretched nationwide.

Ralph’s, like many businesses nowadays, has a Facebook page. Marino’s has one, too, and the company hosts ices giveaways, has a “High Achievers” program aimed to give Italian ices to schoolchildren dedicated to their studies, and maintains a testimonial page on its website, where fans can thank Marino’s for sponsoring events at Gracie Mansion, golf tournaments in Forest Park, and carnivals far and wide. Russo, from Uncle Louie G’s, appeared on The View with Mark Cuban, Lori Greiner, and Daymond John from the hit show Shark Tank.

But just because Russo appears on television, he says, doesn’t mean the original spirit isn’t there. “I’m old-fashioned. I don’t need any of that. I believe like Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come.”

The era of New York pizzerias and Italian ices isn’t over, but the terrain has shifted, the game changed. “Italian ice has maybe been overshadowed in the city, at least in lower Manhattan and gentrified Brooklyn, by the artisanalization of everything,” said Jeremiah Moss, the writer behind Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York, in an email. In his account, the hyper-gentrification of areas like Williamsburg and brownstone Brooklyn are slowly pushing out what he calls “lowbrow” foods — foods like pizza by the slice brought here and popularized by poor immigrants — in order to pave the way for upscale cousins of those same foods — like the Naples-style pizzas popular at places like Roberta’s and Motorino. “The old New York standards, like ices and egg creams, have been co-opted by so-called artisans,” he said. “So we have ‘hand-shaved’ ices drizzled with syrups made from ‘locally sourced’ and ‘sustainably grown’ fruits, vegetables, and herbs. Instead of plain old vanilla or lemon, we have strawberry and basil, peach and cardamom, plum with tarragon and peppercorn. In the meantime, what happens to Gino’s?”

It remains unclear whether revivalists, like the owners of restaurants like Torrisi, Parm, and Carbone, which celebrate and elevate the midcentury New York Italian food cuisine by selling gussied-up shrimp scampi, Caesar salads, and rainbow cookies, will be the saviors or villains in this still-unfolding story. The spicy rigatoni vodka and veal parmesan at Carbone sell for $26 and $54, respectively. But they do, in a way, keep the memory of those foods alive.

Freedenberg does not vilify these places, but he hopes the combination of greasy, New York–style pizza and Italian ice doesn’t go the way of the bagel. “It’s just when the old-school stuff disappears from the city that the problem arises,” he said. “You see that with bagels. Old-timers talk about how bagels all used to be smaller, denser, and chewier. You can almost never find the old-school version anymore. But now the $1 pizza, as everyone knows, is mainly for people who are drunk.”

Vartan says that New York–style pizza will never be entirely relegated to drunk food; he calls that attitude “nonsense.” In his eyes, artisanal pizzerias will never replace the New York slice shops. “Sure, a slice can be consumed when you are hammered, but by no means will that be the only time it will or should be consumed. In a foot-traffic-based environment, a slice shop is the only way to go. It’s fun to go out and spend $20 or more on a 10-inch pizza, but, let’s face it, that’s not a daily thing.”

But Italian ices are on shakier ground. “Gino’s is getting harder to find,” Vartan told me. “Only a couple of places still carry it. Every pizza place used to have it; now it’s difficult to come by. I went home to New York and could barely find it.” Vartan is also considering switching out Gino’s for Uncle Louie G’s at his stores. Gino’s shipments, he said, are “very hard to coordinate.”

In Wiener’s view, tourists and newcomers are less inclined than natives to want an old-school Italian ice like Gino’s, and restaurants are responding to an ebb in demand. “Everyone wants artisan,” he said in an email. “There’s more emphasis on fresh ices rather than those made by a company. People in Brooklyn (e.g., Williamsburg, Cobble Hill, etc.) especially, want handmade, organic, and they are willing to pay for it.” Or perhaps the “art of it is gone,” posed Vartan. “There are so many other options — gelato, yogurt, specialty goods — that pizza shops don’t want to carry it. The margins are only OK, and non–New Yorkers have no idea what it is. It is also sugar, and that’s bad in today’s world.”

“This discussion says something about how Brooklyn is dealing with its own change right now,” Gabaccia told me. “There’s a lot of sorrow, anger, and possession,” The old New York charm of Italian ices may be their saving grace. “Nostalgia is huge right now,” she said, citing the attitudes of some friends who are longtime Williamsburg residents. Memories — even, as with Uncle Louie G’s, reappropriated ones — may yet be worth preserving. Still, one hopes that Gino’s itself, its legacy carried on by six people who still make ices from March to October in Sunset Park, won’t fade quietly into oblivion as pizzeria owners, one shop at a time, remove the orange-framed signs from their windows. But at this rate? No guarantees.

Elyssa Goldberg has contributed to eMarketer, Gothamist, and the Huffington Post. She lives in New York.

David Antonio Perezcassar is a freelance illustrator. He lives in Bushwick.

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