The difference between a sorbet and an Italian ice is more sociology than science. While sorbet clears one's palate after a meal at Industry (food) or Jean Georges, Italian ices are slurped out of a pleated paper cup, on the curb, in 95-degree weather. But fond childhood memories often airbrush a darker story, and street ices are no exception. Truth is, most of them are lousy. Too sweet, underflavored, gooey -- and, in the case of that flavor known as "blue," downright weird.
Which may be why the better Italian-ice-makers are highly proprietary. "I don't wanna speak badly, but Uncle Louie G's and those other guys use artificial flavoring," says Suzie Leeds. She's a co-founder of NYC ICY (21 Avenue B; 212-979-9877), a newcomer that's producing ices with smooth textures and strong, rich flavors -- the chocolate ice, without any dairy ingredients, is surprisingly creamy.
"Artificial flavors? Absolutely not. It's fruit, nuts, and juices, and I'll stand by that," says Uncle Louie G's co-owner Rick Russo (more than 60 locations; Russo's is at 741 Union Street, off Fifth Avenue, in Park Slope; 718-623-6668). As for NYC ICY, he's polite: "It's a good product, I'm not saying anything bad. But they've got a ways to go." A scattered tasting of his 90 flavors delivered some great surprises, and I detected no cheating: The lemon ices contain little bits of zest, providing a pleasing layer of complexity, and the chocolate is as fine as NYC ICY's.
For an authentic experience, though, you can't do better than the Lemon Ice King of Corona (52nd Avenue and 108th Street; 718-699-5133), a Queens institution. The product here is a bit icier and grainier, almost like a granita. (But lay off the food coloring, guys -- the peach resembles a traffic cone.) Take it to the park across the street and watch the boccie games unfold while your little white paper cup gets sticky and mushy.