On the North Side in the summer, people interested in a cool treat turn their attention to Gus and YiaYia’s ice balls in West Park.
I live in Brighton Heights and have enjoyed those legendary ice balls myself, but I also took part Uptown in the 1950s and early ‘60s in my own family’s version.
The street vendor there was Carmen Farina, better known to me as Grandpap and to everyone else as “The Icy Ball Man.” Going as far back as I can remember, he sold homemade Italian ice — the kind of smooth, cool, flavorful and refreshing treat that Rita’s makes now.
Grandpap made it fresh daily by hand in his Marion Street home. His day started early, when receiving a delivery from Nick the Ice Man in an old red pickup truck. Then Grandpap mixed the flavors of the day (always including lemon, his best seller, plus of one many other flavors).
He broke up the ice with an old-fashioned ice pick and packed wooden barrels that housed steel drums. The water and flavor mix were poured into the steel drums and the magic began.
The machine that turned this mixture into the best Italian ice ever was amazing. It consisted of two small electric motors mounted on a board, with a pulley and belt system attached to the top of the steel drums. The motors would spin the drums, packed with ice and rock salt, and freeze the mixture into Italian ice.
While the motors were making their magic, Grandpap would load the large 10-cent cups, small 5-cent cups, the spoons and other supplies onto his wagon. The wagon carried a rectangular wooden box lined with tin and packed with ice.
When ready, he would emerge from his backyard with bell in hand while wearing a white apron and baseball cap. He pulled the wagon, with me helping him for his last five years. We began on Tustin Street and went from street corner to street corner in an area bounded by Duquesne University, the Bluff, the Brady Street Bridge and Boulevard of the Allies.
An Italian immigrant, Grandpap made his living working in a South Side mill for almost 40 years, but this was his passion. On hot summer days, when kids cooled themselves around the fire hydrant and friends and neighbors socialized on front steps, young and old people alike awaited the sound of that old bell and the approach that came after it of The Icy Ball Man.
Because Grandpap was so well known in the neighborhood, and I was with him most days, people also got to know me. Whenever I was seen doing anything wrong, I was identified as The Icy Ball Boy. It was a title I accepted with pride.
Although he may not have been as well known around town as Gus Kalaris, or even Rita, Grandpap will always be a summer memory for those from Uptown and the Lower Hill.
Chris Farina of Brighton Heights, a retired postal worker, can be reached at email@example.com.