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Chilled to Go: Rita's Italian Ice & Frozen Custard

(Dallas Observer, July 15, 2020)  I could tell by the way they whipped their car into the parking space that they were on a mission. The driver had pulled in at an awkward angle and showed indifference to his haphazard alignment. If the lines were lava, their tires would have melted. 

A mom and daughter quickly scurried out of the minivan. There was excited anxiety in their walk. The dad stayed back in the minivan. Hands gripping the steering wheel, eyes alert, he watched them walk away. Once at walk-up window of Rita's Italian Ice & Frozen Custard, the mom looked back at the dad and gave a sure nod. 

And for whatever reason, as I was watching this unfold from Kintaro Ramen's patio, I could tell they weren’t from around here. Maybe their plates were from out of state or a T-shirt indicated allegiance to a sports team up north; I can’t recall exactly. All I knew was they were from another place and knew something about Rita’s that I didn’t. I was a foreigner in my own land. 

They only needed a glance at the menu and as soon as the window slid open, they ordered with confidence. “Peach and vanilla gelati,” the mom said.

They were gone as quickly as they had arrived, off to savor their cool concoctions. 

A minute later, two college students bounced by. One was about five paces in front of the other. The faster one slowed for just one second, glanced and pointed at Rita’s, then barked at his friend, “No! Not today.” 

“I know. I promised myself. Not today,” answered the other with a heavy sigh. But, I could tell by his voice he didn’t mean it. 

My emotions were a mess. I felt like I was missing out on something, but at the same time, mixing custard and flavored ice together seemed odd; texture being the main unknown here. What should my mouth expect? And what happens after these two start to melt and mingle? Isn’t custard eggy? And with fruit icy? 

Jerry Shirer owns the Arlington Rita’s franchise, one of two North Texas locations. His dad is from Philadelphia, so he was familiar with the brand from time spent there. An entrepreneur at heart, Shirer is always looking for new concepts (this is his third business). His wife’s cousin Sean Evans gave him the idea for this franchise and is now the general manager of this spot.

“It took us 18 months to find the right location and, luckily, we added the walk-up window,” Shirer says of the COVID-19-friendly feature. 

Rita’s is catty-corner to downtown Arlington's Levitt Pavilion, an outdoor music venue. In a world without COVID-19, the location is perfect. Concertgoers and all their crazy kids would probably indulge by the gallon during the summer concerts. Plus, it’s below new apartments for students at the University of Texas at Arlington.  Despite not having events across the street and with class attendance being a bit chaotic, Shirer is making the best out of it. As witnessed, it’s a destination location.

“The biggest challenge is people don’t know we're here,” Shirer says. 

Hopefully, that changes because it works. I went with the mango ice with vanilla custard, layered together in a cup, which is called a gelati. The mingling and melting works beautifully. 

The custard is truly phenomenal. It's thick and rich, and I’ve craved it since first trying it and will soon have to go back. When it's layered with the Italian ice, one can try both and get different ratios of flavors and textures.

The ice itself is special because unlike a snow cone where syrup is poured over ice, at Rita’s the flavor is added to the water before it is frozen (in the batch), so the first bite of ice has as much flavor as the last. There's no bland ice at the bottom of the cup or slice on top missed by the syrup drizzle.

The custard comes either hand-scooped (in a variety of flavors) or as soft serve (vanilla and chocolate). There are variations of all kinds on their menu; blendinis, concretes (just custard with topping), misto shakes, milkshakes and sundaes. It can feel like a lot of options.

But, trust the locals from Philadelphia and start with a gelati. Rita's has also just introduced a purple unicorn gelati on which you can get with edible glitter (extra charge). 

Rita’s also has a truck for catering hot events where people need to cool down.

Shirer says he’s hoping for a second location next year. He’s eyeing Dallas, but says a drive-thru is a must: no more haphazard parking.

Rita’s Italian Ice & Frozen Custard is located at 101 E. Abram St., Ste. 120, Arlington and is open noon to 9 p.m. daily. 

Source: original story by Lauren Drewes Daniels published in Dallas Observer, July 15, 2020. Photo by Lauren Drewes Daniels.