Gus Kalaris is an economy of motion. Shaded by a rainbow umbrella and unconcerned by the flock of dozy bees hovering around the 12 flavor bottles, he stands in the cockpit of a small cart.
Kalaris leans on the counter with his left hand. With his right he grips the Gilchrist 78, an ice scraper that was last available for sale around 1950, he said. He looks over his shoulder to ask again, ‘What flavor?’ then nods, and pushes the scraper into a gleaming block of ice, bringing up small, medium and large cups of melting fluff.
“There’s Italian ice,” he said, pouring cherry, orange and lemon syrups onto the ice. “But I call it the Great American Ice Ball. And it’s been on the North Side for 81 years now.”
Kalaris has owned and operated Gus and Yia Yia’s for the last 60 years, but he started helping his father when he was 8. Strictly speaking, Gus and Yia Yia’s is a snack cart. But customers like Steve Glover are quick to say it’s more than that.
“Only thing to make your day is one of Gus’ icy balls. And you ain’t a North Sider if you don’t come to Gus. That’s for sure,” he said.
Nancy Luisi says her family has always done it, though called herself a “newcomer.”
“I’ve only been here 30 years,” she said. “But it’s tradition.” As she talked, her granddaughter Madeline stared fixedly at the ice-filled spoon in Luisi’s hand and impatiently said, “Ah!”
Every April, Gus’ bright orange cart appears in front of the tennis courts at 638 West Ohio St. When it rains, golf umbrellas bloom on top of the popcorn windows. Underneath, perched on a stool, Gus said his dad bought the cart in 1934 for $175, paying $5 a week.
“My dad at that time was sick a little bit. So he thought if he got out in the open — he was a chef. And being in the kitchen all the time it wasn’t too good for his health. But he died very young,” he said.
Still in high school, Gus took over the business. That’s when Yia Yia — “grandmother” in Greek — was painted on the cart, for his mother. Now Gus’ wife Stella is Yia Yia.
“These people, this is a destination for them,” he said. “It’s hard to believe that that many people come here to buy this.”
Gus turned back to scraping ice while Michael Spanos called out the flavors.
“We have cherry, grape, orange, pineapple, root beer, blueberry, banana…”
Spanos has worked for Gus for 16 years. During the winter months he teaches health and physical education. As people make their way to the cart, seemingly from nowhere, he helps manage the flow of change, ice balls, and whimsy.
“Little kids come up and some of the mixes they get, like: blueberry and root beer don’t go real well together but if they really want it, that’s what you get,” he said.
As Doug Sheerer spooned an icy, he watched the camp kids and a policewoman line up. Construction guys, a man in a tie, and the meter maid had come by earlier. A lifelong North Sider, Sheerer said Gus is an icon.
“He knows everybody, their name. And the respect people have for him? In this neighborhood you earn that. They don’t give that out around here,” he said.
With the exception of the time five years ago when someone tried to stab Gus with a screwdriver, he said he’s never had a problem at the cart.
“A lot of people say to me: ‘North Side’s pretty rough and that,’ but when they come here they don’t see any of that right here. It’s like a safety zone or something.”
Gus is 83, and he said people ask him all the time when he’s going to retire.
“I say, if I ever retire you’re not going to get a good ice ball.”
But he’s not naïve. He knows he has to make a compromise every now and again.
“In the evening we close at 9 o’clock. I used to stay to 11. But I can’t handle that anymore. Getting too old, damn it,” he laughed.
90.5 WESA Celebrates Inventing Pittsburgh is supported by UPMC.