Nice Ice

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

As you can see, P.S. 94 didn't have the same status symbols as most schools. Everyone's clothes were big-family hand-me-downs, came from thrift shops, or were the weirdly seamed off-brands that came, quite literally, off a truck that would park unexpectedly in front of the lumberyard and cause a frenzy of moms loading $3 sweat suits into rolling shopping baskets. Cable television hadn't reached our section of the city yet (and due to city politics, wouldn't for another decade); the television we did see, The Brady Bunch and The Love Boat, showed a world so foreign we might as well have been watching America from a foreign country. Which in a way we were. However, in watching it, we and our parents had reached one mutual conclusion: The way out of Queens and into Falcon Crest, Dynasty, and General Hospital was through science projects and vocabulary tests; we studied constantly. Frenziedly. Except on Fridays in good weather, when you made it out, and walked with Dana C. to Sal's for Italian ices.

Why do I tell you this? Because it all came flooding back to me, unbidden, when I set foot in Minnesota's first and only Italian ice shop, the brand new Grand Italian Ice Café, on Grand Avenue in St. Paul. It has been opened by mother and daughter Mary and Allison Johnson, women with Minnesota roots who spent much of their lifetimes out east, in Emmaus, Pennsylvania, but have now returned home to be with family. They brought a taste for Italian ices with them, and so have opened a little café with two freezer cases bursting with brightly colored tubs of Italian ice they make onsite, using special fruit purees and flavorings that they get from a variety of suppliers on both coasts.

If you've never had good Italian ices, you should know that they're made with fruit puree, for the fruit flavors, or other flavor concentrates, for the chocolate, espresso, and such; sweetener, either conventional, or, in the case of the sugar-free ones, aspartame; and water. They're vegan, free of lactose, fat, and cholesterol, and are made on premises free of peanuts, tree nuts, and such allergens. In fact, when I talked to co-owner Allison Johnson, she said the closest thing to a nut they've got is probably the hazelnut syrup for espresso drinks. The little café is open in the mornings, from 10:00 a.m. on, and sells all the regular and deluxe coffees, roasted fresh and locally, in St. Paul's Highland area, by local fair trade company White Rock Coffee Roasters. The sandwiches in the refrigerator cases are also local—from the ACME Deli—as the Johnson's believe in the importance of neighborhood, and of friendly. Which is why they've already got regulars who come in every day to visit Bruiser, Allison's boxer; to see magic tricks, if Allison's boyfriend is onsite; or to check on the availability of the espresso Italian ice. (The flavors change almost daily, so every flavor is not there every day.)

Jana Freiband

These Italian ices are far, far better than the rock-solid ones of my childhood. For one thing, they're not rock-solid: The Grand Italian Ice Café has special freezers that maintain a temperature right above freezing, keeping the ices at a smooth, small-ice-crystal, easily spoonable texture. The ices are much, much creamier than a Sno-Kone, though not as silky as something made with fat and cholesterol. The Johnsons keep 20 flavors on hand at all times—19 regular and one sugar-free—including cantaloupe, pineapple, watermelon, passion fruit, strawberry, piña colada, mango (the most popular), grape, root beer, lemon, lime, banana, blue raspberry, coconut, tangerine, and more. They also have French soft-serve custard, and offer two ever-changing varieties each day.

You can order your Italian ice or custard in the enormous, unfinishable regular size for $2.49, or get the family-sized large, for $3.49. Better, though, is to get a "gelati," a special Italian-American treat in which Italian ices are fitted between a top and bottom layer of soft custard; this costs $3.99 for a (gigantic) regular, or $4.49 for the (impossibly) large. Allison Johnson told me the main problem the café is having right now is that their St. Paul neighbors are all more familiar with Italy, the European Italy, where gelato is an ice cream made with egg yolk, and gelati is the plural of that, and so are unfamiliar with the "gelati" of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and other areas of the Italian-American Diaspora where the word can also mean Italian ice, or "water-ice," layered with custard.

So, how does the Grand Café's Italian ice taste? Clean. Sweet. Cold. Pure. When I visited last, one of the custards of the day was caramel, so I made myself a sort of gelati version of a pineapple upside-down cake, with pineapple and coconut Italian ices, and caramel custard. It was delicious, simple, summery, and good, and, in my particular case, from the second I stuck a spoon in, utterly overwhelming. If you're from South Philadelphia, the Jersey Shore, or Brooklyn it might have the same effect on you. Or, if you give a school's worth of Crocus Hill 11-year-olds $20, you might create the same effect in 20 years. Otherwise, just know there's a new summer treat in town, and it's good, and cool.

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