It’s often 112 degrees here in the Valley. For years after I first got to town, I’d spend much of the day working outside, reflecting that the cliché was true—it really is a dry heat. By the time I’d collapse on my couch, I’d feel as dried out as a clay pot, as a pot must feel emerging from a kiln, and as fragile.
On Arizona summer days like this, I would lament the lack of a cure readily available to citizens of my beloved Pennsylvania home town of Erie: Rita’s Italian Ice—in my never-very-humble opinion America’s greatest frozen dessert chain.
Why, I’d wonder, was this chilly ambrosia not available out here in the sweltering land of the Zonies, where we could really use it?
But almost two years ago, I became aware that a couple of Rita’s franchises had indeed opened around the Phoenix area. And within recent months, happily, Rita’s has landed in the heart of the Kyrene Corridor, at Elliot and McClintock in Tempe.
The dish we call Italian Ice—or sometimes, rather redundantly, “water ice”—comes by its name honestly; it really does go way back in Italian history. It’s claimed that Nero himself would send slaves to the mountaintops near the Eternal City to collect snow, which would then be hustled back to the feast and mixed with fruit and other sweeteners.
Back in dear old Erie, at least during the brief summers, we never had to resort to such hassles to enjoy this remarkable treat.
We just had to betake ourselves to the Rita’s on Gore Road, just off upper Peach Street, and walk up to the little window, and for a ridiculously low price a sweet-faced teenage girl would hand us a cup of Italian ice fit for a Roman Emperor.
If it was a particularly lucky day, the menu would include Wild Black Cherry.
If so, I might buy a large, and sit on the concrete step and luxuriate in the scrumptious flavor and the humid but comparatively pleasant Pennsylvania afternoon. The signature sign mounted over Rita’s entry reads “Ice Custard Happiness,” and I’d be hard pressed to disagree.
Neither, apparently, would Zach Cobian, co-owner of the south Tempe Rita’s franchise.
“My business partner and I are from Lancaster, Penn. So we grew up with it, and we saw the opportunity to try it out here, year-round.” (In Lancaster, as in Erie, the Rita’s stores are only open in the warmer months.)
Cobian and Kyle Ulmer opened their location last August, and business has been lively ever since, “especially now that the weather’s warmed up. In the winter it was a little tough, but hey, people did come in.”
Rita’s menu has, within its limited scope of cool treats, a lot of variety.
A dozen or so different flavors of ice are offered, some daily, others every few days, along with chocolate or vanilla soft-serve custards—my 10-year-old favors the chocolate, straight up.
These may be blended with the ice for a “Misto” drink, or for a “Blendini,” which may be topped with Reese’s cups, M&Ms, Oreos and other such add-ons.
Polluting pure, innocent Italian ice in this manner is acceptable for a little kid, I suppose, but I’m sure some adults must consider it an appalling aberration. The same goes for some of the gimmicky flavors of ice that show up under Rita’s glass from time to time, like Swedish Fish or Red Velvet Cake or Cotton Candy or Peeps.
Don’t misunderstand: Peeps are the greatest Easter candy ever invented, but delicious as they are, they aren’t what I’d normally call refreshing.
However, I always make a point of asking for a sample of these freaky, rich flavors when I see one I haven’t encountered before, and the gracious staff always obliges me with a miniature cupful and a tiny spoon.
Every time, I have the same reaction—that they taste amazingly like what they’re called, in frozen liquid form, and that while one taste is a delight, a whole cup might be oppressive to a mature palate.
Let me be quick to point out, however, that not every adult shares this view. Asked to name his favorite flavor, Zach Cobian says “Birthday Cake,” with a small stipulation:
“I don’t even like sweet things all that much, but for some reason I love it.”
Enjoy it in good health, Zach, but after I sample such kid stuff, I then buy what I came in for—Wild Black Cherry.
Make no mistake: Even among Rita’s flavors, this is a stunner—deeply sweet but not cloying, and studded with fleshy bits of real cherry. Indeed, while in a pinch, I’ll settle for Rita’s standard non-wild Cherry, or Mango, or Juicy Pear, or “Alex’s Lemonade.”
But when I’ve been notified, conveniently in most cases by email, that the Wild Black Cherry is on the menu that day, I hurry right down to the nearest location, so as to ensure I arrive before the newly arrived tub sells out.
In such a case, I usually buy a couple of quarts to take home and freeze—it’s very revivable by means of a microwave zap and some patient stirring. There are four quarts of it my freezer at this writing.
One minor warning, however: Wild Black Cherry will turn your lips and tongue a gory, arterial scarlet.
If I was directing a vampire movie, I would make the actors eat it between takes.