Like Her Father Before Her, Brooklyn's 'Ice Cream Girl' Maria Campanella Says 'Ice Cream is Happiness!'

·9 min read
Maria Campanella
Maria Campanella

Courtesy of Maria Campanella THE ICE CREAM GIRL Angelo Campanella and Maria Campanella

Just like her father before her, ice cream is Maria Campanella's life.

Known as "Maria the Ice Cream Girl," Campanella, 58, has been selling frozen treats on the streets of Brooklyn since she was 23 years old and loves making people happy.

"Fuhgeddaboudit!" she tells PEOPLE in her thick Brooklyn accent. "Ice cream is love! Ice cream is happiness. It's a universal thing. Ice cream makes people smile, it makes dogs smile. It makes kids run and scream and jump up and down. If they can't have it, they cry, you know?"

Even after all these years, she still can't wait to get up every day, climb into her beloved truck and bring happiness on a stick to kids and adults alike, just as her dad, Angelo Campanella — also known as "Chubby the Ice Cream Man" — did for decades.

"When I come down the street, I'm honking my horn like crazy. I got sirens on the truck. I got bells. I got a horn. I don't have regular music. I mean, none of that. I have real music blasting. My truck's like a block party when you come to my window, it's got lights on it."

"It's something people have in their freezers, but there's something different about the excitement of the ice cream truck," she adds. "They could be just walking down the street, they hear the truck and their blood pressure goes flying up. And it's like a part of their childhood and a part of their children's childhood."

Her block party on wheels also boasts a big picture of her father, front and center.

Maria Campanella
Maria Campanella

Courtesy of Maria Campanella THE ICE CREAM GIRL

"My father loved his business," she says. "I used to always want to be like him when I was a little kid."

Her father became an ice cream man in 1944, heading to work in a crisp white uniform complete with a crisp white cap in his white truck, selling frozen treats but also becoming known for doing good and looking out for the kids in the neighborhood.

"I saw how much my father was loved by the community," she says. "I always wanted to be like that."

As it turns out, she is.

In an age where food delivery services can bring customers anything they desire, Campanella likes to do things old school. Unlike most other vendors, she sells hard ice cream including ice cream sandwiches, Good Humor bars and red white and blue popsicles, as well as candy and soda — the types of treats she herself enjoyed as a kid growing up in the 1970s.

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Just like her father, she is also known in the area as a bighearted softie. She loves to stop and chat with her customers and is ready to listen when they need to vent, to which she offers her own brand of street-smart advice.

"I cannot say enough about Maria," says Stacy Sobel, 46, who grew up in Brooklyn. "She's just the best."

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"Everything she does, she puts her heart and soul into," Sobel adds. "People just adore her. If you mention her name, 'The Ice Cream Girl,' everyone knows who she is. She goes out of her way for everyone. The kids go nuts for her. As soon as they see her, they mob the truck."

Just like her father, Campanella also looks out for people.

"She'd never turn a kid away," says Sobol. "If they didn't have money, Maria wouldn't turn them away. She would give you everything she has and be with nothing before seeing somebody else go without. And I'm not talking about ice cream, I'm talking about everything."

"She's such a celebrity here," she adds. "There's really nobody like her."

She's held fundraisers for those in need, including victims of Hurricane Katrina and cancer patients. She's even saved lives. In 2012, she saved a 2-year-old she saw choking in the street.

"I was on my ice cream truck and I saw the commotion and jumped out," she says. "I did the Heimlich maneuver and got the baby breathing again."

Her philosophy about life is simple: "We just got to live, that's what we got to do!" she says. "We can't think about anything bad. We got to live and let live, and have fun. The whole key to life is just to smile and have fun. Who cares about the rest?"

It's what keeps her customers coming back year after year.

Told she is known as a "character" in her neighborhood, she laughs and says, "Fuhgeddaboudit! Oh yeah! Big time! I'm not trying to be a big shot, because I'm not, but you gotta hear the testimonials!"

Daddy's Little Girl Forever

Campanella grew up in a "tight-knit" Italian family and was close to her parents, "Mama Rita" Campanella, and of course, "Papa Chubby," who have since died.

Proud of her father's legacy, she has the words "Daddy, I Love You" printed in giant letters on the back of her ice cream truck and loads of pictures of him inside.

She even fought to have a street named after her dad on the corner of 77th Street and 21st Avenue in Brooklyn, which is now known as "Angelo 'Chubby' Campanella Way."

While she doesn't have a street named after her like her dad, she is just as well-known and well-liked as he was.

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Her fans include "all walks of life," she says. "All ages, all types of people of all colors and all genders. I'm telling you, it's like, you wouldn't believe it. Yeah. I have grandparents and babies and everything in between."

As for why she is so beloved, she says, "My sister keeps telling me different things every time. I wish I could write them down. She's like, 'You got to stop being a Mother Teresa.' The last one was, 'Why do you think you got to be a Florence Nightingale?' I'm like, 'What's a Florence Nightingale?'"

"She said, 'Why do you think you got save the world?'" Campanella adds.

It's in her DNA, she says.

"You know something?" she asks. "Every single day, I try to be a better person."

"My aim is to be better, the best I could," she adds. "Now, I don't want anybody to ever think I'm a hypocrite. So I'll tell you right now, I'm not the greatest person in the world, like everybody says I am. But I'm not the worst either. I'm just a human. I'm regular. And sometimes I got my bad days and sometimes I got my good days. But every single day, I will try my best to be a better person. So that's why I do it."

"Every day, you got to put effort in it," she continues.

Building Her Own Legacy

In between selling ice cream on the street and at school events, Campanella found the time to put her creative juices to work.

In 2015, she says, "I wrote a children's book called Maria, the Ice Cream Girl. It's all over the internet, if you Google it. It's beautiful."

She also says she might be featured in the upcoming season of the Amazon drama, Gravesend, which is filmed in (you guessed it) the Gravesend section of Brooklyn.

"My friend is an extra," she says. "I'm in it too, you know, with my ice cream truck."

Campanella says she has a "talking part" in an upcoming episode and is going to be filmed selling ice cream on the Fourth of July.

That's not all.

"I have more plans," she says. "Big plans."

"I'm writing my own screenplay, like my own manuscript," she adds. "I'm also writing my own book. I started it, I don't know, maybe about 20 years ago. It's going to happen by the end of this year."

That book is a memoir of her life, which will likely also be called Maria, the Ice Cream Girl. "But this is like the adult's book" about her life, she explains.

"It's the next Saturday Night Fever story, but from a girl," she says.

It will likely include difficult memories of her being bullied in junior high, when "I was a good Girl Scout and everything" and then ditching that to "run wild" with a fast-living crowd on the streets of Brooklyn.

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She cleaned up her act when her father "put me on the truck," she says.

"My father had faith in me and believed in me when I didn't even believe in myself," she says.

"That's why I changed," she said. "I thought, 'If he believes in me…'"

When her dad was done driving the truck for the day, she would take over, not just because she loved it, but because she wanted to atone for her past behavior.

"I didn't go to weddings," she says. "I didn't go to parties. I had no free weekends because I made a sacrifice and a commitment to help my mother and father. And I used to bring all the money in and that was it. You know, if I needed something, I bought it, I took something out, but most of it I just handed it right in. Because of all those years that I messed up."

"I always felt bad when I was doing these wild things," she adds. "Because I had a good mother and father and they'd  been through enough."

Fast forward to 2022, when she continues to work "in a dying business." Though she barely makes enough to break even, she continues to sell ice cream in her beloved truck.

"I'm doing it for my father's legacy," she says.

Her customers wouldn't have it any other way.

"I've been buying ice cream from Maria since I would like to say 4 or 5 and I'm 25 now," says aspiring actress Ashley Demetro. "Every time I see her, I still get giddy because not only does she have ice cream and candy, she has a beautiful personality. It's bursting."

Demetro's grandmother always made it a point to take her to Campanella's truck.

"I would ask her, 'Why is there a lady in the truck?'" she says. "And she was like, 'She's different. You live like that. Be different. It's a good thing.'"

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