During the unbearable New Haven heat, it seems as though the only way get through the sweltering, air-conditioning-less days (besides running to the bookstore for yet another fan) is to make frequent trips to Ashley’s or Tasti-D. But when your hair is plastered to your temples with sweat and the humidity is nauseating, the thought of rich, sticky ice cream can be a bit much to handle.
Instead, the real Elm City locals go for the ultimate summertime treat: Italian ice. In keeping with its strong Italian roots, the city boasts a few bakeries that serve this ice cream alternative, often churned just behind the cookie-filled counter. While some, like Libby’s on Wooster Street, sell it year-round, others, like Lucibello’s on Grand Avenue and Olive Street, offer the frosty fare just during the three to four months summer months of the year.
In its simplest form, Italian ice is just flavor, sugar cane and pure water — ingredients that are similar, but not identical, to those in sorbet. Italian ice differs mainly from sorbet in its texture. The first spoonful of the ice immediately calms and cools, although it may cool a little bit too much — Italian ice lovers are often victims of the dreaded brain-freeze until the ice has been warmed a bit by the hot summer air, and the mouth has grown accustomed to the temperature of it.
Italian ice has the granular texture that is apt to remind the taster of a snow cone; sorbet, which is whipped without any air to keep the ingredients compact and the mixture heavier, has a smoother consistency. Biting down into Italian ice gives a crunch that sorbet would not but a snow cone would. But since the flavors are mixed into the ice rather than poured on top when the ice is served, the flavor is more uniformly distributed in a cup of the latter.
Like pasta, Italian ice’s Italian roots are debated. Sicilians are wont to claim that their treasured recipe comes from Arabs, who used lumps of snow to chill alcoholic drinks. But Greeks and Romans were also known to put their wine on ice to chill it, and often would consume the two together in a slushy mixture. And back in the fifth century BC, Greeks were making a name for themselves as the some of the earliest ice cream vendors, selling flavored snow at outdoor markets. A little frostiness was even added to French gastronomy when Catherine de Medici brought flavored ice to France in 1533.
But most importantly, Italian ice made its way to New Haven in the recent past. Opened in 1929, Lucibello’s changed hands in 1957 when Peter Faggio’s family bought the business. The Faggio family has run it ever since, and the friendly family feel of the bakery makes its tempting cannolis and cookie trays all the more appealing. But when summer rolls around, Lucibello’s dusts off its Italian ice machine and prepares itself for the crowds to follow into early autumn — luckily for Yale students, Lucibello’s is just a short walk away from those horribly stuffy HGS seminar rooms that serve as a stark reminder that we have officially begun the school year.
“We have customers who wait for it,” Faggio said. “As soon as summer comes they come to get it. A lot of them stock up on it for the winter.”
After tasting some of the ice, it’s easy to see why a freezer full of it sounds appealing, even during the harshest New Haven winters. Lucibello’s specializes in just four flavors: vanilla, chocolate, raspberry and lemon. The recipes for each are almost identical, save the main flavor. Lemon differs from the other three as well; the raspberry, chocolate and vanilla all have a touch of milk to soften the flavors and the ice, while the lemon is made just with ice, lemon and sugar.
Though it may take a moment to discern the flavor if the taster has chosen vanilla, the other three options pop out like a jack-in-the-box. The raspberry ice tended to be a bit smoother than the rest, although it could just be that one batch was made with more milk. The ice melts quickly in the heat of a mouth, but not before the flavor can be absorbed.
Kelly Pietrosimone, who has worked at Lucibello’s for two years alongside her sister Jaime, said customers always have their favorite flavor, but vanilla and lemon are the most popular.
So while Lucibello’s remains first and foremost an Italian bakery, the addictive nature of Italian ice keeps its customers rolling in, even when the heat outside is tantamount to the heat coming from the industrial sized ovens filled with warm Italian cookies.
“People come here for both [Italian ice and baked goods],” Lucibello’s baker Luis Cuatzo said. “In the summer they have the lemon ice. They come in for pastries but they eat the ice.”