Places that Matter

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Lemon Ice King of Corona

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Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Martha Cooper
Italian ices have been sold here for over 60 years
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Place Matters Profile

By Caitlin Van Dusen

The Lemon Ice King of Corona has been delighting taste buds since 1944. A favorite citywide, the shop inspires loyalty from patrons and employees, and retains a unique ambiance.

You don’t get to be the Lemon Ice King of Corona just by making ices. One has to possess a certain savoir faire to wear the crown--even if your crown is a worn cotton cap and your palace a glassed-in corner shop in Queens, nestled between an Italian pork store and Classic Dental Spa, with “Emergencies Welcome” scripted on its awning.

Peter Benfaremo, or “Pete,” as he is affectionately called by his fans and staff, has been in the ice business since he came out of the army, in 1945; his father, a bricklayer by trade, had started the business only a year earlier. The shop used to be next door, smaller, and they hand-cranked the ice in tubs. According to Pete, the Board of Health won’t allow that now, and he makes all 25 flavors electrically. Lemon, of course, is the perennial favorite, with peanut butter (studded with real peanuts) a close second. Lemon, chocolate, and orange ices are also offered in a sugar-free variety, one of the many accommodations Pete has made to changing times. But his recipe remains classic: sugar, water, and flavoring. The Benfaremos used to sell ices only in the summer, but now they do a brisk year-round business, though of course it’s notably slower in cold weather.

As a boss, Pete is as curmudgeonly as they come, and by the nature of the business his staff appears and disappears as quickly as a lemon ice. But they’re as loyal as his patrons, and some even send their children back to get a taste not only of the ices but of working for the King himself. “I love you, Pete,” chimes a counterboy. “This guy’s like a father to me.”

And as a proprietor, Pete insists on a few unbreakable rules. Few things can oust Pete from his chair, eyes ablaze, like an unwitting customer asking for a “scoop”--or, worse, two scoops in the same cup. “We don’t scoop! We shovel! You can’t mix! Why would you want to mix it? The second scoop is going to get all messy from the first flavor. You don’t like it? Screw you! Too bad. Look at the sign!” He hurls an emphatic finger toward the hand-painted sign: WE DO NOT MIX OR EXHANGE ICES. Pete clarifies, “We don’t use what you think that we use when we put it in the cup. Our manner of giving out the flavors is different.” He demonstrates by grabbing a paper cup, wrenching open a freezer door, and plunging his arm deep into the frost-smoky depths. It reemerges bearing a metal paddle; there’s a separate shovel for each flavor. With rhythmic thrusts of his shoulder, he works the ice to loosen it, kneading it like a potter warming up his clay. Then, with a turn of the elbow, he lifts a thick curl of ice onto the paddle, swabs it across the opening of the cup, then plunges it in again. He drops the second shovelful on top and curls it around itself with a flick of the wrist, making a “hood.” It is in the merging of the first and second scoops in the hood that the blasphemous flavor-mixing is bound to occur.