“Chocolate ice? Please.” For years, that’s what a skeptical Kate Matikonas would say whenever her husband, Rob, a New Jersey native, raved about Rita’s Ice. Rita’s is an Italian ice and frozen treat franchise with a heavy presence in the Northeast. When Matikonas finally had an opportunity to try the strange, flavored ice, however, she was sold. She was so smitten with Rita’s lineup of Italian ices, frozen custards and hybrid ice-custard concoctions that she agreed with Rob that they should sell the stuff themselves. They bought the rights to three Virginia franchises—one in Gainesville and two in Charlottesville—and Matikonas, a UVA graduate of the architecture school, quit her job as a designer to open the first in the old Tropical Smoothie spot on University Avenue on May 17. (The Gainesville location will open in June, and the other Charlottesville shop is just an option at this point.)
Kate Matikonas and her husband, Rob, don’t need a mascot to get them cheering about their new Rita’s Ice franchise on University Avenue. It sure is cute, though.
The University Avenue locale is not your typical Rita’s set-up. Since the franchise began in 1989, they’ve mostly been standalone buildings with a walk-up window, and closed for the winter. Charlottesville’s Rita’s is tucked into a vintage Corner haunt (Matikonas recalls it was the site of Eljo’s when she matriculated), has indoor seating and will operate year-round.
No stranger to Rita’s, Restaurantarama thinks this particular location lends the ice shop a charm that’s lacking in the typical cookie-cutter franchise. Not that the charming old building didn’t cause its own problems.
“We discovered we had no water,” says Matikonas. Uh, that’s, like, a problem for a business based on ice. Apparently, the space lacked its own water meter—a situation that initially wasn’t realized when the closing of O’Neil’s next door shut down the water supply to Rita’s future home as well. Add to that snafu the fact that the old, now seriously slanted floor needed to be leveled to accommodate the treat-making equipment, and you have an explanation for why this Rita’s has been taunting us with its “coming soon” sign since the Matikonases signed their lease several months ago.
And for at least one local fan, the place definitely didn’t open soon enough. Matikonas says an oncologist at UVA who already has become a regular customer during his lunch breaks walked in the first day and shouted, “I’ve been waiting four years for this!”
Another longtime Rita’s fan, however, was not nearly as excited by the local addition. He called the shop shortly after its opening and told Matikonas, “I wish you weren’t on the Corner.”
Sheesh, talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth. Rather than be intimidated by the Corner’s bad-parking-and-bratty-college-kid baggage, however, Matikonas is optimistic that Rita’s will appeal to locals during the UVA-student-less summer season as well as keep busy with the UVA crowd during the fall and winter months when other Rita’s typically close.
As for why this particular product seems to arouse such strong passions in its patrons, Matikonas has a clear answer: “You feel like you’re being sinful, but you know it’s a little better for you.”
That makes total sense to us. So go ahead and get yourself a little Rita’s treat, people—it’s almost good for you.
Movers and shakers
Speaking of Italian sweets, Milano, the espresso and gelato shop in the Main Street Market, finally has a new home. A few weeks ago, owner Mark Cave told us that Milano would vacate its current location when Verity Blue—Cave’s Italian homewares shop—departed the spot. Verity Blue is moving to 100 South St. (the “pink building”), and Cave says Milano will now land there too. The espresso shop will be located inside Verity Blue in a manner Cave likens to the in-store coffee shop at Barnes & Noble. It will also have a small café seating area outside the building.
Even more exciting is that Milano will offer an extended breakfast menu as well as a new lunch menu of paninis, salads and soups in connection with the move. Cave expects the current Milano digs to close at the end of June and the new spot to open by July 3.
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