Long before the Western, the name Bonanza on Long Island has been associated with homemade Italian ices. Given that Bonanza’s was started by John “Chick” Bonanza 115 years ago, this family-run business almost stretches back to a time when the Old West existed. These days, their little red shack is just as associated with dogs and fries doused with great, messy, piles of dripping chili and cheese. They’re made the way you would have made them for yourself when you were a kid if someone had let you.
The cuisine makes it tough to square the Italian origins. Bonanza’s founder, John “Chick” Bonanza, hailed from Avellino, Italy, before moving to Canarsie, Brooklyn, where he sold peanuts, and homemade lemon ice from a pushcart. In 1897 he opened a stand known as Chink’s, on South Street in Oyster Bay where he sold lemon ice and hot dogs. “His real nickname was Chick, but they couldn’t pronounce it too well,” noted Chick’s grandson, Philip Bonanza, who said they changed the name in the 50’s.
Bonanza’s moved to its present location in the 1920’s. Originally, it was a wooden shack. It has modernized (there’s a microwave), and the menu has grown, if slowly, though it’s still a small stand. “There are four generations,” noted Philip Bonanza, “my grandparents, my parents, myself, and my son, Phil Jr. Every generation has added to the menu.”
From Chick’s lemon ice, the homemade flavors have multiplied to 76. “My father stayed with lemon,” said Phil. “When I took over I wanted to expand it to different flavors. I had to get permission to introduce orange, chocolate, and pineapple.”
“We make them right here,” said Phil of the ices, which go for $1.96/each. “Every year we dabble in something new and see how it goes. Last year we tried Strawberry Truffle, and Cherry Garcia. If it sells we keep it. If it doesn’t, it doesn’t. But it usually does.”
The lemon ice is tart and wonderful— real. There are seeds. The ices are very smooth, even creamy. Some of the more interesting flavors include: Apple Pie a la mode, Forrest Berry, Graham Cracker Swirl, Jelly Ring, Pumpkin, Reese’s, Cake Batter, Hawaiian Delight, and Bubble Gum. Pairing the flavors is part of the fun. Peach and Raspberry is a combination that was recommended that really rocks.
The dogs are standard. But the toppings, and amount piled on is fantastic. Of course, you have to get the Bonanza Dog ($2.44), and the Bonanza Fries ($4.62) made with thick, wedge-cut steak fries. They’re prepared lovingly, topped with chili, cheese, ketchup, and slices of fresh jalapeño. “That’s all stuff that I introduced when I took it over in the 80’s,” said Phil. There are also hot pretzels, nachos, and recently meatballs, tomato sauce, and sausages and peppers.
Bonanza’s is open year-round, “Depending on the weather gods.” It’s a great detour on a food road-trip. Order some dogs and fries, then sit at one of the outdoor tables that are there when the weather is warm. Or stand and lean forward as you eat so drippings fall to the sidewalk. Then buy a few ices and savor them as you walk along the water looking out on Oyster Bay Harbor.