Legend has it that South Philadelphia street food vendor Pat Olivieri got bored with selling hot dogs from his Italian market stall in the 1930’s, and started serving sliced beefsteak a and grilled onions with melted cheese in a soft roll instead. Instant success. And Pat’s is still around today, dolling out those ever-popular, clumsy, drippy, chewy, salty soberizers right around the clock, but more about them later.It wasn’t until the late 1800’s that the resident Irish made way for the influx of Italian immigrants clutching their culture, Catholicism and cooking skills. So, to really understand the largest chunk of Philadelphia’s longest surviving food influences, you really have to venture into the root neighborhood where it all began – Soufilly (South Philly). The local tribe has a uniquely extraordinary way of pronouncing things, like galamad (calamari), managad (manicotti) or prozhood (prosciutto), so I will throw in a few phonetics here and there for an extra helping of authenticity. Right in the midst of a sunny street of typical row houses – boasting highly competitive window decorations that include bent candles, ornate vases, faded plastic flowers, vintage tinsel, motionless cats, photographic dishware or gaudy crucifixes – is a lunch-only, mom and pop shop called Mr. Joe’s Cafe. The laminated menu might read like everyone else’s, but the daily special show-stoppers are worth swimming across the Delaware river for. Hailing from the town of Teramo, Scrippelle soup is a clear and delicious hen’s broth with parmesan-filled, wafer-thin crepes rolled into short cigars, which release delightful little bubbles as you munch your way through them. While the house-made gnocchi are a mandatory staple, you are empowered and encouraged to swap and change pastas, sauces and meats to your heart’s content. I added them to a dish of Bra-zhôl (Baciole), which arrives with an ice-cream dish of fluffy, grated parmesan cheese – just begging to be scattered all over the world. The tender roulade of veal, flavored with garlic, basil and (more) parmesan is weighted down by a more-than-generous ladleful of what the locals call “gravy”. We medagones (non-Italians) would refer to it as “sauce”, but who gives a damn what anyone calls it, this masterpiece marinara is worth bottling, as are many of the other options including the crab and the meatballs. Conveniently located right across the street sits the Termini Bros. Bakery – still family-run and still baking Italian treats for 96 years. As you peruse the buffet of Biscotti’s, Canoli’s, Terroni’s, cakes and cookies, you are escorted by servers who compile your order on steel trays before packaging them up into little white boxes with string.
The Pignoli’s are legendarily soft with a marzipan-like Amaretto rush that underscores the thorny forest of toasted pine nuts on top. After taking a fascinating behind-the-scenes tour by one of the Termini granddaughters, I had to try a Canoli shell filled with rigûd (ricotta), and of course a bite of the rigûd-filled Sfoya-deel (Sfogliatelle), which is a ruffled pastry bundle of joy that crunches and crumbles into a million toasty flakes.
But the real heart of the immigrant neighborhood comprises a handful of blocks along 9th Street, designated as the Italian market. Here competing butchers, bakers, grocers, cheese & fishmongers offer local and imported produce from Sarasota to Sicily.And deep in the heart of all the action, the Rim Café, serves the most decadent cream-based Hot Chocolate ever poured. Using a litany of freshly shaved artisanal bars of varying cacao concentration and origin on a revolving platform, the process is as much a delight as the taste.
The neighborhood comes to a head-on collision at a cross-roads where the two competing Philly Cheesesteak vendors face one another: Pat’s and Gino’s Steaks. Both have equally impressive lines. Both have the identical menu. Both are open 24/7, and somehow both seem to survive. Regardless of which you choose, the most traditional cheesesteak to try is referred to as: “Whiz wit’-out”, which means you’ll have a cheesesteak with Cheez Whiz® (an artificial, yellow epoxy goo dispensed from a spray can), without the grilled onions. Grab a large handful of napkins as you dive headfirst into a speechlessly sloppy adventure of ridiculous yumminess.
You’ve probably never used the expression Water Ice in the same way most Philadelphians do. It refers to a very popular summertime treat, and a close second cousin to the Slushy. But many local vendor’s like Pop’s Ice go one step further by adding a dollop of soft-serve or hard-scooped ice-cream right into the middle of it, creating Gelati. The real adventure is the bombardment of combining different flavors of water-ice and ice-cream together. Ginger Ale & Butter Pecan, vs. Cherry & Mint-Chocolate Chip. (When the humidity rises above 80%, I doubt it really matters.)And finally, one of the last remaining stalwarts of the city’s culinary history is Dante and Luigi’s. Founded in 1899, the multi-roomed converted townhouse originally welcomed immigrants who couldn’t speak English, and arrived with the restaurant’s name pinned to their clothing. They were offered lodging and employment until they were able to support themselves. The menu is a lexicon of ultra-classic Italian fare starting with Antipastos, Pastas and traditional Flesh and Fowl. Standouts are the incredibly tender and flavorful Chicken Cacciatore deluged in “gravy”, the simple Pork Milanese topped with a crisp salad, and a special drum-roll for the signature Perciatelli Genovese – hollow pasta tubes you can whistle through, smothered in the most scrumptiously, creamy, white veal bolognaise – that will most certainly put a massive crack in anyone’s bell.