Ralph’s Famous Italian Ices dispute turns thousands into activists

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — Demonstrations and protests. Stealthy videos recorded of the civil disobedience. Political and legal wrangling. It all sounds like activism over an issue of major importance.

For some in the Mamaroneck community of 29,000, potential conflicts regarding safety, parking and overcrowding is of major importance, at a popular Italian ices and ice cream shop.

It's brought out hundreds of demonstrators to the shop in the last couple of days, and thousands more petition signers. Whether or not that's enough to help the vendor overcome a shutdown order remains an open question that lawyers may now have to get decided.

It's a puzzling situation to many observers.

"A bunch of kids coming with their parents for ice cream," said customer Helene Pesce, "that's a problem?"

It is a problem for the Village of Mamaroneck.

It ordered the Ralph's Famous Italian Ices to shut down by 11:59 p.m. Thursday. On Friday, the iced dessert business was open on time at 11 a.m., with a very steady stream of customers, many from the surrounding community, like Debbie Sawyer.

"This place was a beat up old garage," said the 40-year-long resident. "Then there was nothing here for years."

She was one of hundreds of customers who became de facto activists for the frozen dessert maker because the controversy surrounding it could prevent them from getting their favorite icy treats.

"It'd be a shame to close this business down," said customer Sandy Wollman. "It's a great product."

It's also at the center of a coordinated effort by both fans of and the owner of the business to show support to remain open. At last count, nearly 2,200 people signed a petition calling for the village's leaders to allow Ralph's Italian Ices to continue operating.

Hundreds more signed a petition in person at the shop on Boston Post Road here on Friday, as the business remained open, in defiance of the local government's order.

It demanded the shutdown in reaction to complaints by some residents of about noise, parking and crowds that could become a safety hazard both to customers, whose lines often fill the parking lot, and to residents of nearby homes, where traffic from the business can sometimes overflow.

"When you have this many people ask you to stay open," Rosenberg, the owner, told PIX11 News, you have to remain open.

By contrast, nobody from the Village of Mamaroneck would comment, citing advice from their lawyers. Also not commenting on the record were some residents who've complained about Ralph's.

They did contact PIX11 News to express concern for customers' and neighbors' safety and to provide videos showing a crowded lot, with some of the dozens of customers standing in the lane of traffic in the lot itself.

Another video they sent, with a request for anonymity, shows a packed parking lot at Ralph's, but with an attendant directing cars in and out and to available parking spots. It's part of a response to the local authorities' demands, according to Rosenberg.

"He's done everything they've asked him to do," said customer David Sawyer.

That still has not satisfied the business's critics. Again, none would go on the record with their complaints due to concerns, they said of intimidation and retaliation. One forwarded a statement she'd made on Facebook, after the rally in front of the business Thursday night. She would not provide PIX11 News with access to her Facebook page.

"So disappointed in my community!" she wrote. "Last night's rally was to say the very least obnoxious. They carried it out to the neighbors streets, blew air horns, cursed at us and screamed until 11:30 at night encouraging people to honk.

"Parents of these kids should inform their kids that the neighbors are just a victim of this village disaster as Ralph's is. When I went out to ask them to keep the air horns near Ralph's because my kids are sleeping the owner said and I quote 'I don't care about your kids.' Wake up Rye Neck, he only cares about his bottom line $$$$$.

"Teach our kids to Rally for cancer not a store that has ruined the quality of life for members of the community we share!"

Rye Neck is the neighborhood in Mamaroneck where the shop is located. Its owner said he's hopeful that some sort of compromise can be reached to allow him to stay there legally.

"The village of Mamaroneck needs to come to the table," he told PIX11 News, "and say, 'We need to talk.'"