History of Aldo's

“The Essence of Cool” by Brittany Sharpe McCollum

Aldo’s Italian Ices and “Guilty Pleasures” is what founder and Chef Dennis Raffa calls a 34-year overnight sensation. Built upon passion for a quality product that tastes extraordinary and is fun to make, Aldo’s started as a wholesale business with homemade gelato, ice cream, sorbetto, and water ice. For the past three years, it has flourished into an additional retail business serving up the frozen treats along with cannoli and Old Fashioned Ice, and in the winter, indulgences such as cream puffs, tiramisu, carrot cake, and crème brulee.

At first glance, Aldo’s may appear to be merely the place next door, situated amidst row homes with a humble sign swinging above its entrance, but at first taste, the mom-and-pop business in the Port Richmond section of Philadelphia proves itself to be an edible escape from the everyday frozen treats. Serving up old-fashioned Italian ices, gourmet hand-dipped ice cream and gelato, refreshing fruit-filled sorbetto in funky colorful dishes, and, by far, the city’s best cannoli, Aldo’s proves itself as one of Philly’s best kept secrets. The one room, “window service only,” retail store is a welcomed addition to the wholesale business that began 34 years ago in Raffa’s garage.

Raffa, proud marine and Vietnam veteran, former bricklayer, dedicated husband of 34 years and father to a fantastic daughter, perfected his tricks of the trade with help from his uncle and cousin, successful water ice entrepreneurs in South Philadelphia. Raffa began with two flavors, Cherry and Lemon, and continued tasting and testing until his ices met the high standards of Uncle Lou. With zero formal training, Raffa was able to learn from experience, from taste, and from talking with people. Aldo’s wholesale business was born from a passion for a high-quality delicious product. Claiming not to have the personality for retail (although that can be strongly debated), Raffa maintained a strictly wholesale business for years, in which he was able to develop trusted relationships with many equipment manufacturers and ingredient suppliers, including Electro-Freeze and PreGel. Private label packaging kept the business a secret in the industry. With the opening of their retail store, however, the secret came out.

A year after completing certification in ice cream manufacturing and retailing from Penn State University, Raffa opened Aldo’s, a 600 square foot shop, at the corner of Thompson and Ontario Streets. Supporting the community in which he lives was first and foremost in his decision to open the store in Port Richmond, where there are flavors to tempt every individual.

In Aldo’s third season at this location, Cherry and Lemon Old Fashioned Italian Ice are joined by Mango, Blue Raspberry, Chocolate, Root Beer, Pina Colada, Banana, Pineapple, Margarita, and more. Gelato includes Forest Berries, Hazelnut, Gianduia (Chocolate Hazelnut), Tiramisu, and Mango Alfonso, with seasonal additions such as Mississippi Mud Pie, chocolate fudge mixed with Oreo cookies and chocolate chips, and Heavenly Hash, chocolate fudge, dried almonds, mini marshmallows, and chocolate chips. A sorbetto of Fresh Pineapple with Amaretto drizzled on top steals the show. With Banana Chocolate Chip, French Vanilla, Fresh Strawberry, Chocolate Zinfandel, a newly improved Butter Pecan, Red Raspberry Swirl, Pistachio Salad, and Fudgy Peanut Butter Swirl, a close relative of the well known “Moose Tracks,” handmade ice creams complete the mix. Of course, there is always soft serve for the less adventurous and plenty of toppings such as wet walnuts, whole cherries, and chocolate raspberry truffle sauce. Retail flavors are available in cups of six ounces, ten ounces, or sixteen ounces, in sugar and waffle cones, or as part of the infamous “Belly Buster Banana Split,” which speaks for itself. Wholesale water ice flavors are ice cream compatible, able to occupy the same freezer as their ice cream counterparts and scoopable at five degrees Fahrenheit. In addition, Aldo’s will happily customize ice cream, gelato, and ices for their wholesale companies, limiting the final list of flavors only to the imagination.

The business is a family affair, emerging from a desire to do something different. Raffa credits the venture with providing him with a quality of life, as opposed to the back-breaking work of bricklaying that helped pay the bills through the ups and downs of the ice cream business. The happiness Raffa and his wife, Carol, obtain from passing on their hard work and passion in the form of frozen treats is evident in their smiles when the customer first tastes their product and in their generous encouragement to try sample after sample. In fact, Aldo’s neighborhood success can be greatly attributed to Raffa’s presence outside the shop, encouraging passersby to try just a taste of the cannoli cream or the new gelato flavor. He hands them a spoonful, one bite, and they’re hooked. The extreme quality of ingredients, imported from Italy and one hundred percent natural, and the complete consistency in product, whether the customer is the first of the day or the last of the evening, is also a crucial part of Aldo’s philosophy. Using the best natural ingredients available allows there to never be a need for a glass of water after a bowl of ice cream. Raffa says, “You’re always satisfied. There’s not that dry lingering taste in your mouth.”

The retail store maintains a staff of only nine workers, of whom they feel very lucky to have, including one driver who makes local deliveries. Raffa crafts the summer products completely on his own and shares the winter pastry creation with Chef Paula Grant, who makes the best carrot cake around. Due to passionate concern about maintaining a top product, Raffa trusts the baking to only himself and Grant, starting daily at 5:30 in the morning and working until the store opens at 11 am.

A wealth of knowledge, a diversified line of products, and the use of quality taste-tested ingredients sets Aldo’s apart from its competition. Their sorbetto is made from fresh fruit allowed to mature; the ice cream has a low butterfat content of fourteen percent and does not include whey powder, enabling the natural flavors to be most prominent in the product; the gelato are smooth, creamy, and so rich in depth that a four ounce serving completely satisfies. Believing that one eats with their eyes first and foremost, Raffa delivers a product rich in fresh fruits, fluffy and creamy in the dish, and decadent yet refreshing on the palate. Aldo’s does not cut corners, knowing that a product made with the absolute best ingredients on the market will be far more successful in the long run than mass-produced merchandise.

The self-made ice cream man can usually be found outside his shop, enticing customers with spoonfuls of smooth cannoli cream or homemade chocolate peanut butter ice cream. He has a teasing and playful rapport with his customers, cringing when one asks for “jimmies” (“sprinkles” to those not from Philadelphia). “I’ve worked so hard to put this wonderful ice cream together and you’re gonna ruin it with the jimmies?” he comments. Therefore he has his employees offer a sample before handing them their cup. “This,” he says, “is what it’s supposed to taste like.” It is no wonder the lines can reach twenty-five deep on hot summer days.

At this point, Aldo’s wholesale products are not widely available, maintaining a clientele based primarily around Philadelphia. The success of the business is contributed almost completely to word-of-mouth. The impact of advertising pales in comparison to the impact of the satisfied customer. Aldo’s has about three or four dozen wholesale accounts per year, about fifteen to twenty percent of their combined retail and wholesale business, limited mainly by the fact that Raffa makes everything himself in an effort to retain strict quality control. The business is, however, becoming a larger player in the Philadelphia frozen dessert scene, having just obtained the account for the Egg Harbor Township, New Jersey location of Chickie’s and Pete’s, a privately owned restaurant with five different sites around the metropolitan area, after Pete tasted Raffa’s Crema Pistachio gelato. This will ensure that Aldo’s becomes a name far more familiar in the Delaware Valley.

Raffa has procured positive relations with many high-quality equipment manufacturers throughout the years. He has worked happily with the same Electro-Freeze machine for 18 years but could not work without his newer batch freezer, a state-of-the-art Electro-Freeze BF-24 unit that is unbeatable in efficiency, allowing for all manufacturing needs to be fulfilled with just that one unit. When Electro-Freeze wanted a new manufacturing prototype tested, the national business asked only one of their clients, Aldo’s, to be the sole tester. Consequently, Raffa used the variable speed BF-12, wrote up all of his recommendations for it, and changes were made regarding those recommendations. The Electro-Freeze BF-24 is that original prototype with the alterations Raffa proposed. Raffa has a Henry-Thompson freezer, as well, that requires a little more time but which he has used for 34 years without any trouble. Aldo’s frozen treats are a testament to the importance of time-honored and trusted equipment from reliable companies.

With 34 years experience and a still budding business, Raffa has a bit of crucial advice for those entering the business. “If you don’t have one hundred percent of the money and you don’t have enough money to live for a year, don’t do it.” He has also always been a proponent of the introduction of a product through taste-testing. “If a restaurateur gets a waitress to put a little sample taste-test out there, it’s a guaranteed sale, a guaranteed sale.” Being that Aldo’s is a window-service-only store in the summer, customers cannot come in and see the product, therefore Raffa gives them a taste and it works. “If you have the pride in what you do, you’re going to produce the greatest product out there. Pride is everything.”

The journey from a backyard beginning to a successful diversified wholesale and retail business with separate manufacturing, baking, and retailing locations has allowed Raffa to realize his own capabilities and helped to encourage his forward thinking. Every plateau is an achievement and every obstacle is a challenge, urging Raffa on to the next step. Future plans include the opening of a gelateria and an ice cream, water ice, and gelato manufacturing school. All of which, given the drive, the passion, and the pride inherent in the products of Aldo’s, are guaranteed to be another triumph for the business’ talented and enthusiastic founder.

Aldo's has been in business over 30 years and is certified in the production, decoration and serving of high quality gelato and pastry by an Executive Chef from Italy. Aldo's is a family owned and operated business.Aldo's has been a wholesale manufacturer and distributor for over 15 years. We have been trained by an uncle in old-world water ice recipes and Aldo's is also certified in ice cream manufacturing and retailing from Penn State College in State College,.Pennsylvania.(This training seminar is viewed by the Industry as being the best Ice Cream School in the world.)

The Old Store...

Photos of Aldo's under construction March 2005

Aldo's Water Ice and Ice Cream
at 2637 Ontario Street, Philadelphia PA 19134

Aldo's photos from 20 years ago :

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