Mill Avenue is approaching frozen dessert overload... [checks his watch] any second now. At this moment there are seven, count 'em, seven stores on Mill that sell only frozen desserts. This isn't even considering the countless other places offering shakes, sundaes, frozen Daiquiris, or over-the-top frozen coffee drinks. The latest to throw their hat in a ring that's already piled high with hats is Rita's Italian Ice. With all the other frozen treats on Mill, it stands to figure that there is already someone selling Italian ice. That someone is Cookiez On Mill. Cookiez is a Battle of the Dishes veteran. Last time, Cookiez offered a respectable ice cream sandwich, but a new place stole the show and left Cookiez in second place.
Will Cookiez take back glory with their Italian ice, or will the new kid once more top the old guard?
In This Corner: Rita's Italian Ice
The Set Up: Rita's is a chain that's new to the Valley. Their first Arizona location at 48th Street and Indian School opened less than a year ago. They're a Philadelphia-based chain that specializes in water ice, a confection with a consistency between a convenience store slushie and a scoop of sorbet. It's too soft to hold a scoop shape, but too firm to be consumed with a straw. The Tempe location is almost hidden, despite being right on Mill tucked away next to Mellow Mushroom. Once inside, bright colors and cheerful staff abound.
The Good: The Alex's Lemonade flavor tasted like lemonade made from actual lemons. The neon-red cherry was reminiscent of childhood days swigging cherry Kool-Aid, crimson-stained tongue and all. The texture of both was smooth all the way through. Service was super-friendly, in the manner of the ridiculous dog and pony show that franchise corporate overlords typically expect. I was greeted the instant I opened the door, before I had a chance to cross the threshold or make eye contact with anyone. I imagine once the suits get out of town, the staff will simmer down to a reasonable level.
The Bad: Someone needs to find the volume knob on the lemonade flavor and turn it way up. On a lemon ice, I want bright intensity, with tart lemon that gives your mouth a little pucker power. This wasn't it. And then there's the cherry. After the first few bites of nostalgia, the flavor gets cloying pretty fast. I'm glad I had the lemon to cut the intense sweetness. The texture was a little wet for my taste, but this may be my regional bias from living in Tucson for years and enjoying Eegee's. Any Philadelphians care to weigh in on this? And In This Corner: Cookiez On Mill
The Set Up: Cookiez has been around almost since time immemorial. While known more for enormous ice cream sandwiches served until the wee hours, they have other offerings including Italian ices. Inside, you sure as hell won't confuse it with Rita's; Cookiez has a distinctly home-spun atmosphere that hearkens back to before Mill's gentrification.
The Good: I prefer the snowy texture of the ice at Cookiez to Rita's looser consistency. The atmosphere isn't nearly as slick as Rita's, but I like it this way; it's great to see a genuine mom-n-pop shop thriving in an area overrun with franchises. Both places had good service, but I prefer the relaxed friendliness at Cookiez.
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The Bad: The lemon ice had been in the cooler way too long, with big icy chunks that stopped my spoon cold. If they're taking more than a day to scoop through a huge tub of lemon ice, maybe it would be better to have small tubs in the display cooler, refreshed regularly from the big tubs stored in a deep freeze. While Rita's lemon flavor was quieter than I prefer, the flavor of both cherry and lemon ices at Cookiez were almost nonexistent.
And The Winner Is: Well... The most appropriate way I can sum up this battle is to have you visit this website and push the button. Go on, I'll wait.
Yup, there was no winner this time; Both could only muster a resounding meh. If you made me pick one, I'd tell you that cup-to-cup, the Italian ice at Rita's is less humdrum than the one at Cookiez. But I'd also tell you that Italian ice is by far the weakest link in the Mill Avenue frozen dessert chain. I went to Rita's and Cookiez one right after the other, but my craving wasn't quelled. I was this close to hopping in the car and driving way the hell down to the Eegee's in Casa Grande just so I could have some lemon ice done right. Instead, I strolled over to Paletas Betty. I tried their new blueberry lemonade flavor, and loved it.