WHAT IT IS -
Around here, it's usually called Italian ice - that sweet and cold concoction that can be as refreshing as bodysurfing in the ocean on a scorching summer day.
Italian ice, sometimes just called water ice, is usually whipped into a slurry of fruit and ice, and then frozen solid. It comes in lollipop colors and flavors like lemon, watermelon, and cherry.
In other parts of the country, like Hawaii and Florida, variations called shave ice and snow cones are a similar frozen dessert. But there was a new guy in town - a Polish one - when Tom Curyto moved with his wife, Lynne, from Buffalo to the Philadelphia area in the early 1990s and tasted Italian ice for the first time.
He became so obsessed with it that he began making his own Italian ice in his kitchen at home. And his newfound passion for the traditional boardwalk treat eventually evolved into a business after friends suggested that his version was better than the original.
So Curyto, an aeronautical engineer by trade, tweaked the age-old recipe for Italian ice so much that he renamed it and trademarked it as Polish Water Ice. (Woda lody is the Polish translation, but it's never been part of the brand.)
Curyto, who is indeed of Polish descent, says he thinks his particular method of making water ice is so popular with customers - there are now 20 franchised locations from Lake George, N.Y., down to Ocean City, Md. - because it is almost as creamy as ice cream, but without all the fat and cholesterol.
WHEN IT GOT HERE - Curyto and his wife opened and operated their first location on the Ocean City boardwalk in 1997. Within two years, they obtained a trademark for Polish Water Ice and began franchising the business in other locations along the East Coast.
The newest location opened last week on the Atlantic City Boardwalk. In 2006, Curyto sold his original Ocean City location at 1068 Boardwalk to John Viehweger. So successful was Viehweger, 45, at selling the Polish version amid a sea of other Boardwalk places that sell Italian ices that he opened a second Ocean City location several years later at 830 Boardwalk.
"A hundred times a day people ask me, 'What's the difference between Italian and Polish water ice?' " Viehweger said. He simply smiled as he explained that his product is much "smoother . . . creamier" than traditional water ice.
WHY IT'S SO TASTY - Unlike traditional Italian ice, which is usually scooped by hand from 25-gallon tubs, Polish Water Ice is dispensed like soft-serve ice cream from a machine that prepares it fresh as it is needed.
Neither Curyto nor Viehweger will talk details about precisely what goes on inside the custom-made dispensers that whirl and whip the mixture of ice and fruit around until it comes out in a creamy, thick stream, and is sold in sizes that range from "kiddie" priced at $3.27 to "quart" priced at $7.01. A "large" goes for $4.67.
The stands also sell soft-serve ice cream, or custard, that can be eaten alone or mixed with the water ice. While all the traditional flavors are available - including chocolate and piña colada - the biggest Polish Water Ice sellers include mango, cotton candy, and a new one called Sweetish Fish, similar in color and flavor to the age-old Swedish Fish candy.
"The recipes are unique to the brand that Tom created," says Viehweger. "People really do come to the boardwalk every year and look for us. But we also have just as many people who've never tried it before who want to know what it's all about."
WHERE YOU CAN GET SOME - Polish Water Ice is at two locations on the Ocean City boardwalk: 1068 Boardwalk and 830 Boardwalk. Hours vary, but the stores are open every day until Labor Day. After Labor Day, times and days may vary. More information may be obtained at 215-316-6965 or for more locations at the Shore and elsewhere go to www.polishwaterice.com.
609-652-8382 @JacquelineUrgo www.philly.com/downashore