Making ice might not seem like a big deal to most of us — take water, put in freezer — but perfecting the craft is an art.
"Everything we do is high tech — for ice," says Joe Mastro. He and his brother Mike have been producing top-shelf ice at their Polish Hill location since the late 1970s.
At Mastro Ice, the process begins with what Joe Mastro calls "really good municipal water," which is then run through a series of filters and UV lights. Then, the water is agitated constantly while an ammonia-cooled machine freezes the ice from the bottom up. "Only the purest water freezes," says Mastro.
Pure frozen water is what the city's tonier cocktail bars are demanding.
"There's nothing worse than making a good drink, pouring it over ice, and seeing that ice melted after five minutes," says Tender Bar + Kitchen bartender Sean Rosenkrans.
A top-shelf ice program demands cubes of pure water with maximum surface area. Larger ice cubes melt at a slower rate than their common ice-machine brethren, which means the drinks will remain a purer expression of the bartender's intention. Purity assures that any ice that does melt will not impart off-flavors to a drink.
Preparing the ice for service is as much an art as freezing it is. "There are so many little things that factor into carving," says Giuseppe Capolupo of Bar Marco. He was — at least in Pittsburgh's modern cocktail resurgence — the first barman to purchase large blocks from Mastro Ice.
Capolupo revs up a chainsaw and cuts 48 squares from a 25-pound block. He aims for perfection: after the squares are cut, he polishes the cubes on a hot plate until they become transparent blocks of crystal glass.
Still, Rosenkrans says, as he uses an ice pick to shape a block of ice into chunks of rough-cut diamonds, this hard work should go mostly unnoticed. "You want it on the periphery. They should have the experience without really knowing they're having it."