Snowballs Offer Sweet Relief

August 26, 2009|By Mark Gross | Mark Gross,mark.gross@baltsun.com

The forecast calls for snow and ice.

At least that's what Baltimoreans seemed to prefer in the blistering weather last week. When humidity pushes the heat index beyond 100 degrees, snowballs and ices provide sweet relief. Each year, hot new flavors cool crowds.

Anika Cunningham, 25, whose pink hair and purple-rimmed eyeglasses could be modeled after a snowball split between cotton candy and grape, says she started working at Hamilton's One Sweet Moment snowball stand when she was 8 years old. The stand - more of a snowball rowhouse where customers crowd a carryout window on the porch - opened 17 years ago. Back then, the menu featured 14 flavors; customers can now choose from more than 100 regular flavors and more than 100 specialty flavors, many of which, Cunningham says, she created herself.

"My mother has little patience for creating flavors," Cunningham says of Althea Dietzel, with whom she co-owns the shop. "She just tastes and approves."

Cunningham, having sampled the competition locally and beyond, identifies a few traits that define the Baltimore snowball experience. First, call it a "snowball" (some spell it "snoball"). Snowcones, however, are found across the rest of the United States.

Second, marshmallow tends to be a favorite topping for Baltimoreans. (The goopy, sweet ooze is requested less frequently as temperatures rise.)

Third, local menus include staples such as egg custard, fireball (a hot cinnamon flavor based on the candy) and skylite (a bright-blue variation on raspberry).

One Sweet Moment has tried out such fun flavors since its early days. One of the shop's first customers craved a combination of banana, bubble gum and blueberry, and the Triple B, though lacking widespread appeal, still has a spot on the menu.

Rita's, the Italian water ice franchise, creates flavors based on customer feedback as well. The chain's recent release, Swedish Fish, was created in homage to the fruit-juice-flavored gummy candy. Joyce Hollander, co-owner of Rita's in Fells Point, "thought there would be texture issues." She was relieved to discover that it "tastes a lot like the candy."

Since it launched Aug. 1, the Swedish Fish flavor has held its own against Rita's most popular flavor, mango, Hollander says. It sold more than 20 quarts on a recent day, compared to mango's 36. "If we don't have mango, people freak out," she says. "It's like Armageddon is coming."

Mango is a top seller at Mount Washington's Tropicool, too. The shop sells more chocolate ices than mango, though, which might have something to do with owner Lydia Fitzsimmons' heavy-handed inclusion of mini chocolate chips.

Another sought-after flavor at Tropicool is the sprinkle-filled birthday cake. "I'm obsessed with Graul's birthday cake," says Fitzsimmons of the local grocery chain's popular confection, "so I had to make" the flavor. "I grew up with snowballs," Fitzsimmons adds. "As you grow up, your tastes get more refined, and Italian ice is a natural progression." Kema Goodwin, enjoying a strawberry ice from Tropicool, describes the treats as "$2 air conditioning." After all, snowballs are about staying cool.

If you go

One Sweet Moment: 2914 Hamilton Ave., is open 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily. onesweetmoment.com.

Rita's : 2033 Eastern Ave., is open mid-March to mid-October, noon-10 p.m. through Labor Day, after which it closes at 9 p.m. 410-732-0214. See ritasice.com for more locations.

Tropicool: 6083 Falls Road, is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. daily from the end of March through October. 443-845-5720.

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