In this series for T, the author Reggie Nadelson revisits New York institutions that have defined cool for decades, from time-honored restaurants to unsung dives.
It’s easy enough to find banana and fudge or banana caramel ice cream at your local deli these days, but the flavor I miss from my childhood, and which is far harder to track down, is just plain banana. No chocolate, no nuts. It tasted only of cream, bananas and sugar, and was much more luscious and profound than the sum of its parts. At Eddie’s Sweet Shop in Forest Hills, Queens, it is just as I remember it, as if seasoned with a dash of nostalgia.
Often described as New York’s longest surviving ice cream parlor, Eddie’s is a neighborhood institution beloved for both its frozen confections and the fact that it has remained pretty much unchanged since Giuseppe Citrano, an immigrant from Southern Italy, bought it in 1968. According to the Rego-Forest Preservation Council, there has likely been a soda fountain at the address, a two-story red brick building at 105-29 Metropolitan Avenue, since at least the late 1940s, when William Witt, a German American, opened Witt’s Ice Cream Parlor there. But it was Citrano who made the place Eddie’s. Apparently there was no Eddie, and Citrano’s son Vito often jokes that his father must have reckoned that if he didn’t put his own name on the door, should a customer have a grievance, they wouldn’t get mad at him. With his father, Citrano is said to have coined the slogan “Take your children to the place your grandparents had ice cream.”
Unsurprisingly, then, Vito (who took over in the early 2000s) and his wife, Angelina, who own and run the store now, aim to keep Eddie’s as it has always been. Even the metal boat-shaped dishes for banana splits are vintage, with some dating back to the shop’s early days.
In fact, Eddie’s entire interior evokes a bygone age — or the drugstore from Thornton Wilder’s 1938 play “Our Town,” perhaps. To your left as you enter is a long marble counter with wood-topped swivel stools. Along the wall behind it is an elaborate wood built-in with mirrors and slots for printed cards bearing the names of ice cream flavors: butter pecan, maple walnut, cherry vanilla, vanilla fudge, mint chip. On a ledge, large glass jars hold syrups, and there is an ancient-looking green metal machine for making malts and milkshakes, as well as an enameled refrigerator that, according to Vito, “is at least 80 years old but still works.” The original ceiling overhead is made of pressed tin, the floor out of hexagonal green and white tiles, and opposite the counter is a large glass-fronted wood case filled with a colorful assortment of candy. “In the ’70s, we made our own chocolates,” Vito says. “But we got too busy.”
At the back of the space — though, on account of the pandemic, Eddie’s is currently open only for takeout — are little tables and slightly rickety wire chairs, as well as a few booths. When I arrive late on a sunny afternoon with my friends Jolie and Gary Alony, who own the beloved neighborhood pharmacy Thompson Chemists in SoHo, a diverse crowd of all ages is eating ice cream with a certain look of ecstasy on their faces and, in the case of one little girl, whipped cream on her nose.
There is much studying of the menu, as if it were an ancient text. Possible orders include milkshakes, malts, floats and some of the best egg creams in New York — the kind with just a dash of seltzer added to the milk and syrup. Naturally, I start with some banana ice cream, but then I decide that I should probably try some other flavors, too, topped with my choice of caramel, hot fudge, pineapple, butterscotch, walnuts (plain or in syrup) or chocolate sauce.
In addition to the banana ice cream, there is one absolute knockout. I have probably eaten hundreds of gallons of coffee ice cream in my time — many of them during the pandemic lockdown — but Eddie’s is the best I’ve ever had. Like everything else here, from the syrups to the whipped cream, it’s made on the premises, and it has a deep, subtle flavor: creamy but not overly rich, sweet but without that strange aftertaste caused by too much sugar. Vito doesn’t introduce new flavors casually but is open to experimentation. “If you want Rocky Road, we can add marshmallows and nuts to your chocolate ice cream,” he tells me. “In fact, my son Brandon, who is often behind the counter, is a master mixologist, and it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but he can probably produce up to a million combinations.”
Joseph, the younger of Vito’s two sons, can often be found downstairs in the kitchen making ice cream and toppings (he even soaks the raisins in real rum). Vito beams when he tells me about his kids. He himself worked alongside his father and his grandfather, who was also named Vito, starting at the age of 12, and says it was his father who showed him the meaning of hard work. For a short time after college, Vito worked in finance, but he was back soon at the family business.
I’ve come to Eddie’s with the Alonys because Gary, who was born in Rego Park, one neighborhood over from Eddie’s, has always loved the area’s history. “It was 1976 when my friends and I began exploring Forest Hills,” he says. They would ride their bikes to Station Square, with its old inn and shops. “We were too young to attend the great concerts at the stadium in the ’60s by the Beatles and Simon and Garfunkel, who went to Forest Hills High. But we rode with joy past the Forest Hills Gardens, with its grand Tudor-style mansions, and for a bunch of 13-year-old kids, the neighborhood felt locked in time. There was no better break than to stop at Eddie’s.”
In 1988, Gary met Jolie. She was an Upper East Side Manhattan girl who ate her ice cream at Serendipity 3 on East 60th Street, and at the long-gone Rumpelmayer’s at the Hotel St. Moritz. She was, however, won over when, for their first date, Gary took her to Eddie’s. Now in their mid-50s, they’ve been married since 1991.
“I thought it was so romantic to sit at a small, round table set for two and share a banana split with coffee ice cream and chocolate syrup and homemade whipped cream,” says Jolie. “Gary was so excited that he also ordered milkshakes.” Grinning, she recalls how, when she was growing up, Manhattanites would often refer to people from Brooklyn and Queens as “Bridge and Tunnel people.” “And then they had that 718 phone number,” she says. “But that date turned out to be the best. I fell head over heels in love with my Bridge and Tunnel husband at Eddie’s.”