Granita (grah-NEE-tah) — grəˈnētə/ noun 1. a course granular dessert ice with a sugar-syrup base, usually flavored with fruit purée, coffee, or wine. (Italian, from feminine past participle of granire, to make grainy, granulate.)
It is said that Roman Emperor Nero was the first to enjoy the Italian ice in 62 A.D. when he had slaves go up along the Appian Way and bring back buckets of snow from the mountain to his banquet hall. He then mixed the snow with honey and fruit. Some say Marco Polo brought the recipe back from China in the 13th century.
The desserts was brought by Catherine D'Medici to France in 1533 when she married the king of France. Here it was called Sorrbet from the Latin verb sorbete. The Turkish word serbert and the Persian word is sharbat, which means juice.
In America, especially in Philadelphia and Chicago, it is called Italian water ice. Every summer I anticipate pulling out the old ice cream machine and making fresh lemon granita. Actually, it is a sentimental time for this chef because granita runs in my blood.
My mama, Josephine Mirabile, grew up in Kansas City’s northeast area — the old Italian neighborhood. Her father owned a grocery store and he was known for his granita.
He did not have an ice cream machine but rather a large copper cylinders that he would fill with his lemon, water and sugar mixture and then the ice man would deliver ice. He would freeze the cylinders in the ice and hand churn.
Mama remembers a “Granita War” in 1935 with the competing grocery store across the street. They would never lower price, but rather increase the amount of granita for customers. Four double-dip cones for a nickel … seriously.
The old Cropis grocery store is now a house and the lot next door is one of Kansas City’s most beautiful vegetable garden full of tomatoes and cucuzza (Sicilian squash). What I wouldn’t give to go back in time and enjoy my grandfather’s granita.
In Newark, N.J., my father’s parents owned a grocery store on Smith Street and my grandfather not only sold imported groceries and cheese, he also sold lemon granita. He made it the old fashioned way in pans and scaled it for customers. He also lived in an Italian neighborhood and sold the lemon ice for 10 cents a cup. Pretty interesting indeed.
In Sicily, my cousin Gaspare’s family made granita in the old town of Gibellina. People traveled for miles and miles during the summer months for the famous granita and the specialty “granite en brioche,” a sandwich filled with lemon ice. Sounds crazy doesn’t it, but believe me it is delicious and refreshing. A real eye opener.
My cousin’s family used a Carpignani machine, used by the most famous chefs around the world. The antique machine still sits in the back of the family coffee shop in Gibellina. No ice cream trucks in the small towns in Sicily, locals just go to the local bar and coffee shop for the frozen treat.
For this chef, summertime just screams granita. It’s refreshing, not too filling and oh so delicious. Truly artisanal, easy to prepare and loved by all. So simple, but satisfying. To be honest, I have never heard anyone say they dislike granita.
So what do you think my friends, granita for breakfast? Are you in? Now go find some brioche because here is my artisan granita recipe you will be sure to enjoy. Happy summer!
Jasper Mirabile’s Sicilian Lemon Granita
1 1/2 cups of fresh squeezed lemons juice
4 cup water
2 cups sugar
Place sugar and water in a medium pot on the stove and bring to a boil. Remove from heat and stir in lemon juice. Let it cool. Pour into a square baking pan and place pan in freezer, scraping with a fork every 30 minutes. Continue doing this every half hour or so until the granita is completely frozen and resembles fresh snow.
To serve, scrape the surface with a fork so the mixture breaks into large flakes. Scoop and serve.
Chef Jasper J. Mirabile Jr. of Jasper’s commands the helm of his family’s 59-year-old restaurant, consistently rated one of Kansas City’s best Italian restaurants. In addition to running the restaurant with his brother, Mirabile is a culinary instructor, founding member of Slow Food Kansas City and a national board member of the American Institute of Wine and Food. He hosts many famous chefs on his weekly radio show Live! From Jasper’s Kitchen on KCMO 710 AM and 103.7 FM and sells a line of dressings and sauces.