If the perpetual lines outside the new Nifty Fifty’s on Oregon Avenue tell us anything, it’s that pandemic stress has us embracing old-school comforts.
Sure, Philly has ice cream hoagies, vegan ice cream sprinkled with 24-karat gold flakes, and a direct-to-consumer ice cream service that makes weekly “flavor drops.” But there’s room for nostalgic treats, too, including the ice cream soda, which originated here in 1874.
That’s when Robert McCay Green, manning the stall of a soda-fountain manufacturer at a Franklin Institute expo, struggled to outshine a flashier competitor. To lure customers to his display, “he placed a dab of ice cream in a glass of old-fashioned sweet soda.” It drew crowds to Green’s setup at the expo and ultimately led to him become one of the region’s leading soda-fountain makers.
In tribute, here are four Philadelphia-area ice cream sodas.
Milkshakes reign supreme as the best-seller at this throwback restaurant, which has locations in Folsom, Northeast Philly, South Philly, and Turnersville, Gloucester County, with two more on the way in Warminster and the Port Richmond Village shopping center. But perhaps more remarkable than the ever-evolving list of shakes is Nifty Fifty’s prodigious soda selection. “Hundreds and hundreds of sodas,” says marketing director Jackie McGlynn, who’s also the daughter of Nifty Fifty’s founder.
Watermelon, chocolate, cherry coconut, almond cheesecake, lemon Dr Pepper, toasted marshmallow — it only scratches the surface of the full lineup. The soda program is so robust partly because employees are encouraged to submit flavor ideas; if the flavor makes it to the menu, the employee gets a bonus.
The ice cream comes from Hy-Point Dairy Farms in Delaware, and the sodas are made with cane sugar-based syrups custom-created for Nifty Fifty’s by I. Rice, a Somerton-based food manufacturer. Vice president of operations Joe Donnelly says there are weekly taste tests of new syrups for fine-tuning: “When we work on these flavors … the color has to be perfect, the taste. It’s got to be all-encompassing.”
As ice cream sodas go, blue raspberry with vanilla ice cream ranks as one of the most popular (second to the root beer float). “It sells your eyes immediately,” Donnelly says. “It’s just this popping bright blue.”
2491 Grant Ave.; 2700 S. 10th St.; 1900 MacDade Blvd., Folsom; 4670 NJ-42, Turnersville, N.J.; niftyfiftys.com
Banana splits are the namesake of Port Richmond’s corner ice cream shop, so it’s no surprise that they’re joined on the menu by sundaes, shakes, and floats. Soda options include Mexican Coke, cream soda, orange, and cherry — plus the most popular: a Shirley Temple, the enduring 1930s creation.
Float buyers mostly opt for vanilla, chocolate, and mint ice cream. Bassetts is the primary brand dipped here, complemented by a few wilder flavors from 1-900-ICE-CREAM. The sodas are mostly Boylan’s.
The origin story of this 2-year-old gem involves a constellation of North and Northeast Philadelphia neighborhoods: Husband and wife owners Jay Bennett and Dee Thurner have lived in Port Richmond for a decade, and both grew up in Olney. As a kid, Bennett would visit a cousin in Juniata Park. They’d eat pizza at the original Santucci’s on O Street, then hop to the Juniata Sweet Shop for ice cream.
“That was something that I really enjoyed, it’s very nostalgic for me,” Bennett says.
Bennett worked at the now-shuttered Little Baby’s in Kensington for five years prior to opening Somerset Splits on the corner of Somerset and Almond Streets, near Tacconelli’s Pizza. He and Thurner strive to keep prices affordable (one scoop runs $3, a float is $7), even as the shop gains more traction with Fishtown customers traveling further afield.
2600 E. Somerset St., instagram.com/somersetsplits
Glenside’s 1930s-style ice cream parlor, sandwiched between the Village Diner and the Keswick Theatre, has been around since 2015, slinging malted shakes, New York egg creams, and lime rickeys alongside scoops and sundaes. The shop changed hands last October, when Rachel Tomaro and her fiancé, Benny Johnson, took over.
They weren’t ice cream pros before this — they were longtime Best Buy employees — but as Tomaro says, “It’s basically retail, you’re just selling something different.” She and Johnson wanted to modernize a bit, keeping offerings old-fashioned, just not so old. “We bring you back to your childhood — like more recently.” (They’ve added dessert pies, soft-serve, and cold brew floats to the menu.)
When Tomaro was faced with pandemic downtime, she drilled down into Weldon’s soda flavors. She started crafting syrups at home, using fresh fruit to make them from scratch. She played around with pineapple, strawberry, and mango. Her first attempt at homemade ginger ale actually came out too spicy, she says.
Her blueberry-lavender syrup, mixed with seltzer to make soda, wound up becoming Weldon’s most popular — and it pairs beautifully with vanilla ice cream.
“The next step is actually making our root beer and the cola,” Tomaro says. She’s read root beer extract simplifies the process, but that seemed like the easy way out. Instead, she plans to get some sassafras root and do it right. “It’s intense and a little bit harder to source ingredients, but I feel confident that I can do that.”
293 N. Keswick Ave., Glenside, 215-886-0757, theweldonsodafountain.com
Some argue there’s a technical difference between an ice cream soda and an ice cream float: The former is made with seltzer or soda water mixed with syrup, while the latter involves a ready-made soft drink.
That means ice cream floats are on offer at the 27-year-old Yardley Ice House, which specializes in house-made water ice. And the classic root beer float leads the way, says John Bissert, who owns and runs the shop with his wife, Susan.
Because water ice and cream ice drives the business here — top flavors include cherry Bordeaux, peanut butter cup, and cookies and cream — soft-serve is the ice cream of choice. The Ice House uses a premium custard mix that has egg blended into its base to give it a richer, creamier texture.
And while the Bisserts usually order Mug Root Beer for their floats, the pandemic’s supply-chain crunch has led to a shortage, so A & W is on tap.
77 S. Main St., Yardley, 215-321-9788, yardleyicehouse.com