Ask Chris D’Emilio about his current favorite flavor of water ice, and his typical easygoing attitude suddenly shifts to intense.
“It’s just blueberry, but it’s like having frozen jam,” he says. “The color is so beautiful, and when you put a little dollop of vanilla soft serve on top, set against that purple-y-blue, it mixes with the cream and looks almost like an impressionist painting swirl.”
For all his affability, D’Emilio, co-owner of D’Emilio’s Old World Ice Treats on Philadelphia’s East Passyunk Avenue, is dead serious (and a little poetic) when it comes to his dessert. This is Philly, after all, home of water ice—"wooder ice," if you’re from around here, and "Italian ice" to everyone else. While places in the city like Pop’s, John’s, and Italiano’s paved the way as early as the 1930s and still serve the perfectly sweet and slushy treat in standard flavors like lemon, cherry, and chocolate, D’Emilio’s is offering a fresh take on the classics.
The 37-year-old Philly-area native was once a table games dealer at a local casino. After one rough night at work, he daydreamed about switching careers. “When I was a kid, we used to have this ice cream man that came around in a Jack & Jill truck,” he recalls. “He used to give our English Springer Spaniel ice cream sandwiches. He was the coolest.” But after D’Emilio researched the accompanying salary, he realized he would never make a living selling someone else’s ice cream. But if he sold his own?
“My grandmom had a sorbet recipe she taught us, and if you make your own product, you’re cutting out the middleman,” he says. He researched cooking techniques at the library, and started making lemon and strawberry ice treats—a kind of hybrid water ice and Italian sorbetto—using her recipe. Friends encouraged him. Then co-workers in the breakroom of the casino started asking for more, and he knew he was on to something. He bought a freezer sidecar for his motorcycle, and in 2015, on July fourth, his grandmother’s birthday, he launched D’Emilio’s Old World Ice Treats. After the first few years roving around at pop-ups and farmers markets selling cups of water ice throughout the summer, D’Emilio combined forces with South Philadelphia neighbor Mike Strauss of Mike’s BBQ to open a brick and mortar.
“I've known Chris since we did a pop-up together three years ago,” says Strauss. “He’s a very genuine person making a great product—it's all small batch, fresh fruit, and juice. No one is doing this in Philly.”
Strauss came up with the savory menu, focusing on a short but excellent lineup of gourmet sandwiches created by some of Philly’s best chefs, using ingredients imported from Italy. “I've always had a love affair with sandwiches,” he says. “We have some great sandwich makers here in the city, so I decided to do something different.” Taking inspiration from chefs like Gabriele Bonci, the Roman pizzaiolo who specializes in square-cut pizza al taglio, Strauss reached out to local pizza shop Rione. The same dough that the family-run operation ferments for three full days to become airy, tangy pizza crust is used as the foundation of Strauss’s sandwiches. The result is a destination exalting traditional Philly foods. (See also: Joe Beddia’s recently unveiled Hoagie Room.)
“We’ve morphed the d'emicart into a full-blown trattoria,” says D’Emilio.
Old World Sandwiches include recipes from chefs Jeff Michaud of Osteria, Doreen DeMarco of American Sardine Bar, and Marc Vetri, known for his eponymous (and pricey) Italian fine-dining restaurant. Vetri’s sandwich is called La Famiglia e Tutto, layered with housemade prosciutto cotto, mortadella mousse mayo, shaved lettuce, tomato, onion, banana peppers, oil and vinegar, and grated Parmigiano Reggiano.
While the roster of water ice flavors now goes beyond lemon and strawberry, D’Emilio credits his grandmother’s recipe, still a closely-guarded secret he won’t share, as the basis for everything he makes. Many of his ingredients—fresh blueberries, strawberries, watermelon—come from local vendors, many of whom operate in the same farmers markets he sells his treats. Other flavors are collaborations with local businesses, like the recent Midnight Snack, with vanilla bean and chunks of crushed up chocolate chunk cookies from nearby Aurora Grace chocolates. Other popular summer flavors include black cherry, birch beer, and nectar cream—the latter inspired by friends who have a shop in New Orleans, with hints of cherry, vanilla, and amaretto.
Now that D’Emilio has a brick and mortar, though, he won’t be closing up the cart for the season, and will instead test out some new flavors. “As we’re heading into the fall, it’s time to make more cinnamon-y things, and cookies, and pumpkin pies,” he says. “I move with the seasons, whatever I’m feeling that day I view as my compass for what I’m creating this week.”