By JIM WILLIS
Like a neon-lit crocus busting through the asphalt island at the juncture of Bridge Ave and Rector Place in Red Bank, the annual re-opening of Lighthouse Italian Ice is a sure sign that this awful winter is almost behind us.
Closed since Halloween, Lighthouse reopens Friday. PieHole stopped by to check in with owner Kevin Valerio to get the scoop on opening day.
“With this winter we’ve had, people are dying to get out,” says Valerio.
Indeed, Valerio tells PieHole that as he’s been working at the store getting ready to open for the past week, drivers are honking their horns and waving at him.
“People have been calling all week to see if we’re opened,” he says. “They are ready to get out.”
Valerio, 40, who opened the Red Bank store in 1996, shuts down Lighthouse every year for about four months, always reopening in early March. The break allows him to spend time with his wife and daughters Maia, age 9, and Jules, 7, at home in Long Branch.
“A lot of people think I shut my doors and go to Florida for the four months that we’re closed every year, but it’s not like that,” says Valerio. “When we’re closed, I’m a bit of a Mr. Mom,” he says.
Valerio’s wife, Chrissy, owns a Shrewsbury workout studio, the Bar Method.
“She’s very busy, so I try to make myself available for those four months that we’re closed, because once we open, it’s go time, seven days a week,” he says. “I miss out on a lot of things with my family during that time.”
Valerio’s daughters start hounding him weeks in advance to get the store opened up. He tells PieHole that all the kids in the area have a sixth sense about the opening.
“The kids are amazing, they know before the parents as soon as we open.”
Lighthouse has a dozen ice flavors and three ice cream selections: vanilla, chocolate and a flavor of the week. (Tip: keep an eye out for the Nutella.) With all those flavors, Lighthouse regulars know it’s all about the combinations.
Valerio tells PieHole that the first four machines – lemon, blue raspberry, cherry and orange – are called “the rainbow.”
“The kids go crazy over that,” he says.
And of course, there’s the vanilla ice cream and orange ice standby. But PieHole wanted to know about some of the more questionable combos Valerio’s seen.
“Oh, it happens all the time, kids ordering crazy stuff,” he says. “We’ll get some kid at the counter who will order blue raspberry ice with chocolate ice cream, and then they’ll ask for some strawberry sauce on it. While they’re ordering, the parents are looking at them like ‘that’s disgusting’ but the kids love it.”
Valerio says that kids try to outdo one another and come up with combinations that no one’s ever done before so that they can say “I came up with that.”
The kids who work the windows at The Lighthouse take the crazy orders in stride. Valerio is proud of the talented workers he has, and tells PieHole that he’ll probably hand out 50 applications this weekend to kids who want to work the counter.
“I always get compliments on how nice my workers are,” he says. “It’s not like some of these other places you go and the kids don’t smile and they have no personality.”
Valerio says that beginning Friday, Lighthouse will be open seven days a week, 12p .m to 10 p.m. every day. Once it warms up a bit, it will be open from 11:30 a.m. until 11 p.m. every night.