Nice Ice

New Grand Italian Ice Café specializes in the frozen, non-dairy treats of the Italian American diaspora

Grand Italian Ice Café
976 Grand Avenue St. Paul
651.290.2704

Italian ices were the single most important cult object of my fifth-grade life. You ate them like this: First, it had to be a Friday in good weather, and you had to have grades good enough to be let "out" for lunch. If so, you'd be freed from school, the school where the immature baby third- and fourth-graders were trapped, like babies. Did I mention they were like babies? They were. Once free, you'd head, as an unspeakably mature and free fifth-grade pack, through the tree-lined, house-crowded streets of Queens, to Sal's Pizzeria. As you traveled, the cool kids, led by the flame-haired Dana C., surged to the front of the pack. The nerds, basically the rest of us, sank to the back. But we were still kinda together.

Once at Sal's, you'd order. Ices and a slice cost $1. One $10 birthday check from grandma kept you in the mix all spring long. Sal would throw your slice in the oven, hand you a small, white wax-paper cup of ice water (the larger, branded cups were strictly for those paying for soda), and dig into the freezer for your precious, yellow paper-cup Marino's Italian Ices. (It was never singular, in my childhood; there was no Italian ice, only Italian ices. I think even one single indivisible molecule of sweet blue would be, in fact have been, Italian ices. I don't know why.)

Now, with your ices in hand, it was time for strategy. Some kids warmed the lidded yellow paper cup in their hands. Others peeled off the lid and let the ices come to room temperature, naked to the elements. Still other kids left the ices entirely alone, fully closed, on the worn Formica tables. The goal was to get the ices to a warm enough state that they could be flipped, revealing the gooey, dark, sweet flavor layer at the bottom of the cup, the one which had, through thawing and re-freezing, separated itself from the pale, hard, flavorless top four-fifths of the ices.

Many were the ways to achieve this, but for some reason, Dana C. decreed that there was only one true way: First, use your small wooden paddle-spoon to gouge a circle around the periphery of the cup, until you detect the darkening of ices that indicates the sugar syrup; then stop. Next, twirl your spoon around as a drill bit, until a small hole has been bored in the center of the ices. Using the spoon in the center hole, tilt the cup, and try to back the entire Italian-ices block out, leaving the dark sugar-syrup as an intact puck. Once the ices were out, try to reinsert them in the cup, with the shiny dark flavor layer intact. If you could pull this off, triumph. As you walked back to school, you ate happily of the flavor-layer, and, if applicable, compared tongues, to see whose was most dyed.

Dana C. had boys who would flip her ices for her. It's hard to describe how cool Dana was. For one thing, there was the hair, a bright Irish tangerine color that was beyond exotic in our predominantly Korean, Italian, Indian, and Greek corner of Queens. Among all our little black-capped heads, Dana was a single flame. Furthermore, Dana's mother was a crossing guard, and when Dana left school she would literally have the traffic parted for her and her friends, and so would walk off, leaving the rest of us stranded on the road-ringed island of our school, like lepers. Furthermore, Dana had older sisters, and thus was the only girl in all of P.S. 94 to use a curling iron and makeup. Her sparkly eyeliner made her blue eyes twinkle like the dance floor in the Love Boat, and her hair fell in perfect flipped-back pillars beside her face, giving her a certain regal resemblance to other pale, pillared miracles, like the Parthenon.

The coolest thing about Dana, though, was that she didn't give a hoot. About grades, teacher approval, academics, or getting into a math-and-science magnet school, which were all the rest of us fresh-off-the-boat immigrant kids cared about. I wasn't a FoB myself, but my family had kept those same FoB values, despite our long-off-the-boat status. We held fast to the idea that any math test you got 100 on was designed by idiots—they were cheating you of an education!—while any math test you got an 80 on proved you were an idiot—you were cheating yourself of an education!

Our single fifth-grade class at P.S. 94 would fill the entire auditorium for the science fair. Most kids brought in not just the science project they had proposed, but one or two extras they had developed on their own, in secret, so that they wouldn't risk humiliation if some ambitious exploration of Mendellien genetics failed. All except Dana C., who brought in the same battery, wire, and nail year after year, reproving again that electromagnets could be made, and, furthermore, that rocks and cloth were unaffected by them. Rumor had it the original electromagnet was created by one of Dana C.'s sisters and then handed down, in a display of not-caring-about-science-projects that was worse than blasphemy.

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