Grand Italian Ice Café
976 Grand Avenue St. Paul
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.
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.)
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.