When you enjoy an Italian ice at The Lemon Ice King of Corona, you have something in common with ancient Sicilians. A 2018 Vice article cites Jeffrey Steingarten’s essay “The Mother of All Ice Cream” to draw a line from The Lemon Ice King back to the granita, which was born from people taking snow off of Mount Etna and flavoring it. Italian ice truly has a long Italian history, leading up to the 20th century, when counters and pizza shops made it feel like an intrinsically New York City treat.
The Lemon Ice King, now at 52-02 108th St., has helped pave the path of that New York City legacy. Nicola Benfaremo founded the company in a Corona garage in 1944 and his son, Peter, took the business to the next level at its Corona storefront. Along with the Di Cosmo family, famous for bringing Italian ice to America in Elizabeth, New Jersey, in 1915, the Benfaremos made Italian ice what New Yorkers know and love today. With small-batch churning throughout the freezing process, these ices are creamier than their granita ancestor. Simple (ingredients are usually just fruit juice, water and sugar), sweet, creamy and icy, The Lemon Ice King’s ices quickly became a staple in the neighborhood and beyond.
Michael Zampino’s first job was behind the counter at The Lemon Ice King. He moved up the ranks into production, and when it was time for Peter Benfaremo to sell the business, he entrusted it to Zampino along with Vincent Barbaccia, both of whom still own and run The Lemon Ice King today. Retiring didn’t mean staying away from the business he loved and that his family had built, though: Zampino says Benfaremo was a fixture at the shop until the day he died in 2010.
Seventy-five years after Nicola Benfaremo started churning Italian ice in the classic lemon flavor in a garage, people are still lining up at the storefront to cool down with not only lemon but any of The Lemon Ice King’s many flavors.
“It’s the history,” Zampino says. “People have been coming for many years, generation after generation. We get a lot of ‘My father took me here, his father took him here, now I’m taking my kids here.’ People all have a story about coming here — after they eat at a restaurant, they come here for dessert, or they come after a Mets game.”
Zampino attributes The Lemon Ice King’s iconic status with its history as well as the quality of the product. There have been some other more unexpected draws for new customers, too.
“We get a lot of German tourists,” Zampino notes. “Apparently, the show ‘The King of Queens’ is big in syndication over there and we’re in the opening credits.”
Aside from the allure of The Lemon Ice King’s celebrity, the shop offers the chance to try traditional Italian ice in less conventional flavors, like bubble gum, licorice, watermelon, sour apple and cotton candy. Or, you can take the purist route with lemon, chocolate, or cherry. Zampino says the Italian ices are a great way to cool down, but also says customers still come in the winter.
“We definitely get our regulars; it doesn’t matter how cold it is. They come, grab an ice and they’re on their way — it can be 20 degrees, but they come. They’re loyal.”
The Lemon Ice King serves all of its more than three dozen flavors at any given time, including a handful of sugar-free flavors.
Zampino says peanut butter is one of the most popular flavors. “People kind of say ‘Really? Peanut butter?’ but then they taste it and love it.” He adds that lemon is “still king, still number one.” Also popular are rainbow, cherry, pina colada and coconut.
The Lemon Ice King offers one other treat in the winter months that is also a neighborhood favorite: candy apples, made fresh every day.
The Lemon Ice King is located at 52-02 108th St. in Corona. For more info, visit thelemonicekingofcorona.com.