Italian ice is a frozen confection somewhat similar to shaved ice or snow cones. It should not be confused with gelato, Italian ice cream, though sometimes parfait-like confections are sold that layer different flavored Italian ice with gelato. This parfait dessert may be called gelati, which may further confuse some. Further the past tradition of referring to ice cream as ice in America can suggest Italian ice is a type of ice cream. This is typically not the case. The principal ingredients of the authentic version are water, sugar and flavorings, blended and frozen together.
The main difference between Italian ice and other ice desserts like snow cones is that all the ingredients are mixed together prior to being frozen. Snow cones and shaved ice have syrupy flavors added over ice and are crunchy. Italian ice should always be smooth, and sweetening is usually sugar and not corn syrup. It’s really more similar to sorbet than to shaved ice or snow cones, though some online sorbet recipes have milk products and Italian ice never does. Additionally for those worried about the growing number of foods with high fructose corn syrup, this version of “ice” may be a better choice.
You can find this dessert quite obviously in Italy, where it may be called water ice. It’s also commonly found in the US Eastern Atlantic states, and has been sold in places like the Jersey shore for several decades. It may be sold by street vendors, in Italian restaurants, or at local fairs and events. It’s extremely popular as a summer treat, since it contains no fat. It certainly does have plenty of sugar, but without milk products and especially cream, it’s a much lighter and refreshing dessert to many.
In other parts of the US, you may be able to find water ice in your grocery stores, usually located near the ice cream and popsicles. It often comes in individual cup sizes and it can be quite expensive. Even pricier is water ice served in actual frozen fruits. Lemon ice might be sold inside halved lemons at Italian delis or restaurants, making for a beautiful presentation.
Flavors of water ice vary, with lemon usually the most popular. Mint, watermelon, berry and a variety of other flavors are offered at the many places that make or sell water ice. Some versions that dieters find particularly appealing are chocolate ice, which has all the delicious flavor of chocolate without the fat, and hazelnut or vanilla flavored ice. Most water ices are fruit flavored, and some may feature a mix of flavors, like melon mint, or mixed berry.
Whichever flavor you can find or choose, this smooth frozen dessert is clearly a delight and many find it much more refreshing than standard gelato or ice cream. On a hot day, there may be nothing quite as ideal as a lemon Italian ice to temporarily offer a sweet escape from uncomfortable weather.