Newsday food critic Scott Vogel visited with Phil and Patricia Bonanza, owners of Oyster Bay's popular Italian ice stand, which has been part of the community since 1897. Credit: Newsday / Raychel Brightman/Raychel Brightman

In 1992, a girlfriend at work wanted to set up Patricia Bonanza on a blind date.

“She said, ‘I know somebody else that is going through a divorce, but I don’t know if you’d like what Phil does,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘Well, what does he do? Is it legal?’”

He sold hot dogs for a living.

“I said, ‘Is he happy selling hot dogs?’ She said yeah. I said, ‘That’s all I need to know.’”

A world where happiness is all that matters and a man can make a living selling hot dogs. Meeting the Bonanzas can leave one awe-struck and slack-jawed, like a paleontologist stumbling upon a woolly mammoth tusk on the Siberian tundra. The couple are perfectly preserved specimens from an era long-gone, their lives and world encased in a permafrost of Italian ice.

Owners Patricia and Phil Bonanza at Bonanza's in Oyster Bay.

Owners Patricia and Phil Bonanza at Bonanza's in Oyster Bay. Credit: Raychel Brightman

Every day, hundreds pass by their little stand on Shore Avenue ignorant of the treasures contained therein, but for countless more, Bonanza’s is hallowed ground, a place of pilgrimage for lovers of ices and hot dogs, yes, but also anyone else curious to discover who we once were, and perhaps might be again. It is an established fact that the snap heard upon biting into a frankfurter there is materially the same snap that’s been heard on the streets of Oyster Bay since 1897, that lemon seeds spat from its ices have been clogging the town’s sewers since the Gilded Age. And all because some member of the Bonanza family has risen at 5 a.m. most mornings to juice lemons and boil dogs for more than a century.

A HUMBLE START

Phil's grandfather sold squeeze cups of ices from a pushcart on South Street in the early years, even as they now served with spoons from an un-air-conditioned converted shed, Bonanza’s home since the 1920s. He has to be careful about changes, though. The stand’s fans are great guardians of its legacy, sometimes more than Phil himself.

“The ones who’ve been coming here since God-knows-when, they don’t want the spoon. They say, ‘give me that squeeze cup,’” Phil laughs, sitting at a picnic table behind the shop. “When they’re in their 90s, they’re adamant. Have to have their hot dogs the Italian way, too.” And don’t even think about tinkering with their beloved lemon ices. “If they don’t get a pit, I get complaints.”

The lemon ice with pits at Bonanza's in Oyster Bay.

The lemon ice with pits at Bonanza's in Oyster Bay. Credit: Raychel Brightman

Still, he and Patricia have made tweaks over the years. Once, Bonanza’s had only summer hours; now it sells ices year-round, with Phil running the place himself till 4 or 5 on winter afternoons--“unless we have a fight, then I stay open longer.” (For a while, the only heat emanated from Bonanza’s stoves and compressors.) He also added flavors like orange and chocolate to the menu of ices, over the initial objections of his what-do-you-want-to-sell-another-flavor-for grandfather John, who fled a small town in southern Italy at the turn of the 20th century, seeking his fortune first in Brooklyn and then on the Island.

“Those two frankfurters yesterday were like Peter Luger steaks,” an elderly man announces as he walks by the stand, briefly stopping to chat. He reminisces happily about several Bonanza's visits past, then clams up when asked to give his name. "I eat them just once a year," he says by way of explanation. "I'm on a very strict diet."

“And yesterday was the day?” inquires Phil, sounding skeptical.

“I could eat 10 of them because, you know, eating a frankfurter outside is not like eating a frankfurter inside. It’s a whole different thing.” The Bonanzas nodded in agreement.

“There’s another man who comes here, we don’t know his name,” Patricia says. “Last year, he came down and said, ‘I go all over the world, and every place I go, I have an Italian ice. There is no chocolate that tastes better than this.’”

“It took me a long time and a lot of expense to learn chocolate before we got it right,” adds Phil, leading me to a small refrigerated workshop behind Bonanza’s. There, amid the whir of two large batch freezers, he spends hours each morning stirring up the many flavors currently offered — 34 on this day, from chocolate Oreo to pink lemonade to cake batter, although lemon remains his biggest seller. At Bonanza’s, it seems, lemon is the flavor of eternity, a lonely constant in a world with few of them left.

TASTE OF NOSTALGIA

When children peek up at him through the stand’s window, in his mind’s eye Phil often sees their parents doing the very same thing, and sometimes their parents’ parents. “We have very old people who tell us that when they were kids, they’d get to come here for a lemon ice and a hot dog if they were good all week,” said Patricia.

Anna Milione of Oyster Bay enjoys a rainbow ice at...

Anna Milione of Oyster Bay enjoys a rainbow ice at Bonanza's in Oyster Bay. Credit: Raychel Brightman

“If they’re elderly, I carry it to the car,” adds Phil, who will be 77 in November. He was a kid himself when he began his Bonanza’s career, sweeping the floors at the age of 5. Later, he briefly tried work as a mail carrier and car salesman, but at the stand he had impact. People travel from California and Texas to visit Bonanza’s. Over the years he’s hosted a wedding party that wanted to stop for ices on the way from the ceremony (“They had freakin’ limousines out here!”), and almost every day brings nostalgia types in search of their own memories frozen in ice. One slurp or snap and suddenly you’re piled in the back of a wood-paneled Plymouth station wagon again, or cutting high school for serious discussions about boyfriends lost to history. Bonanza’s confirms that you really did once spend the whole day pedaling to the beach with dad, towels around your necks, all evidence to the contrary. And there aren’t too many memories of grandma left, but everyone remembers the day her tongue was stained by blue raspberry ice.

“We had this mother and daughter, the mother was about 85,” recalled Patricia. “She said, ‘You know, when I come here, I feel like I’m back in the old days.’ Coming here did that for her.”

Right now, almost everyone, not just the old, is longing for the old days, so business has been brisk. And as if aware of its outsize importance to the Island’s psyche, the Bonanzas remained open during the pandemic’s darkest days, even as most of Oyster Bay was shuttered and Bonanza’s part-time student workforce was on lockdown, forcing Patricia and Phil to run the stand entirely by themselves.

Mercifully, COVID has brought few changes to Bonanza’s otherwise. Indeed, the biggest change has been in the number of fans desperate that it not change.

“I had one guy come down here and say, ‘What the hell’s with the gloves? Take those things off, it’s gonna ruin the taste,’” Phil laughed.

“I looked at him and said, ‘I can’t!’”

ICE CASTLES

Here are some of the Island’s notable purveyors of Italian ice.

Bonanza’s: 25 Shore Ave., Oyster Bay; 516-922-7796, bonanzasitalianices.com

Ice Palace: 1518 Montauk Hwy., Oakdale; 631-244-3552

Lemon Ice King of Corona (at Cherry Valley Sandwich Shop): 831 W. Beech St., Long Beach; 516-600-9406, cherryvalleylb.com

Papa Mia’s: 469 Main St., West Sayville

Ralph’s Italian Ices: NY-based chain with 58 Island locations; ralphsices.com

Rita’s Italian Ice: Locations in Deer Park, Franklin Square, Lawrence and Oceanside; ritasice.com

Tina’s Italian Ices: 410 W. Main St., Patchogue; 631-475-8462, tinasices.com

Uncle Louie G: Locations in Bellmore, Floral Park, Lindenhurst, Seaford and Oceanside; unclelouiegee.com

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