Philadelphia is a whole lot more than cheesesteaks. It has a number of world-class restaurants, amazing markets and street food vendors on nearly every corner. You will not go hungry in the City of Brotherly Love, and the quality of service will demonstrate that that nickname is well-earned. Here are some notes:
A terrific place to begin your visit -- and your day -- is at Reading Terminal Market, especially if it’s a rainy day. The indoor marketplace, located, as you might guess from the name, in a converted Reading Railroad terminal in the city’s center, has row after row of food vendors, some selling the raw ingredients -- fish, eggs, meats -- and others offering a cooked meal. I found an open stool at the Dutch Eating Place, which, like many of the food stands here, is staffed by people of the Amish community. I had a breakfast of fried eggs with a side order of scrapple, the Eastern Pennsylvania, um, delicacy of meat scraps, usually pork, stewed with cornmeal and shaped into a loaf for slicing. On the plate, it looks like a burnt piece of toast. It has a dryish texture, but it’s pretty tasty when slathered with eggs. I also picked up a slice of shoo fly pie, so named because its main ingredient of molasses prompts the baker to keep shooing flies away. This is another PA regional favorite, but anyone who had a mother who did her own fly shooing would be disappointed with this version.
Walking among the vendors of the 9th Street Market is like walking back in time. The crude stands line both sides of the street and have large awnings that roll down to protect the produce as the sun moves across the sky during the day. But besides the produce sellers at the curb, you’ll find shop after shop of fish mongers, butchers, spice vendors, sandwich shops, and, most notably, cheese andsausage shops. If you’re just visiting the city, you may not have need for the live crabs in the fish store, but stop into a place like Claudio’s and get a couple of wedges of cheese and a loaf of bread and have yourself a nibblefest back at your hotel. Want something a little more? Stop in at Sarcone’s Deli and grab an Italian hoagie. If you want to add a bottle of wine to your feast, take note: in Pennsylvania, wine and alcohol may be sold only in state liquor stores. Ask around for the one closest to your hotel. If you’re leaving the market there’s one on South Street near the intersection of 7th Street.
There are loads of places to sample Philly’s most famous sandwich, the cheesesteak. You can read about my experience here. Others more familiar with the city recommend Tony Luke’s and Jim’s, though most recent reports about Jim’s indicate it, too, may have become too touristy.
Not too far from the Italian market area is Little Italy Pizza, where you can get a pretty good slice of pie in a very barebones, unadorned storefront on the back of a huge block-sized building that also houses a Whole Foods Market. Good crust, good sauce, good toppings. Good pizza.
It’s been a while since I’ve seen a restaurant as elegant as Butcher and Singer. One of the Starr Restaurant Group’s pantheon of very good restaurants, Butcher and Singer occupies an old bank lobby, something that will be immediately obvious upon entering the posh space with its granite walls, soaring ceilings and tall palm trees. My friend and I just stopped in for one of the old-timey cocktails featured at the bar, a traditional martini for me and a sidecar for my companion. To go with it, we had the steak tartare appetizer, which I can state without equivocation is one of the best I’ve ever had. Yes, ever. The meat was shaved, not ground, and well blended with capers and mustard, served with buttery toast points. The sidecar was delicious -- no wonder this one is making a comeback. The martini was just OK, but the olives, hand-stuffed with pimientos, were great.
I wish I had a restaurant like Barbuzzo to visit regularly. This is the sort of place where you feel more comfortable eating at the bar than at a table. And the best place to sit is at the food bar where you can watch the talented young cooks creating the dishes. It’s great fun to watch someone who obviously loves what he’s doing, which was the case with the fellow doing the cooking the night I visited. He also enjoyed talking about it, which added to our enjoyment. Even better, the food was fantastic. I sampled the meatballs, which were made with ground short rib and pork with a bit of chile in the mix, and the paccheri,rigatoni-like pasta tubes so large as to seem like lasagna sheets. The paccheri was served with a pork ragu and mustard greens. Both had tomato sauces but each was distinctively different. How nice, and what a change from restaurants that use a one-sauce-fits-all approach. The plates are more tapas sized and most are priced in the teens.
It’s a little bit embarrassing for someone from Florida to find better Cuban, Caribbean and Latin American cuisine in Philadelphia than back home. By sheer proximity, Florida should hold the title for the best in those foods. But Mixto was better than anything I’ve tasted back home lately. I had a mofongo with pork that could easily be placed on the menu of an upscale gourmet restaurant. The mound of mashed, fried plantains was decorated with pretty red pimentos and accompanied by a couple of deliciously chewy pork rinds. Unlike most of the mofongos (mofongi?) one finds in Florida, Mixto’s did not have garlic as the primary flavor. The entree of bandeja tipica was a Colombian dish of seared ribeye steak served with two fried eggs, pork rind, avocado, arepa, chorizo, rice and beans; an absolute feast on one plate. And get this: it was $16; the mofongo was $9. The staff were all friendly and efficient. And the bartenders make terrific mojitos and caipirinhas, too. My friend and I had intended for this to be something of a first stop on a nighttime culinary tour. But this place filled us up so much that we called it a night. Located on Philly’s east side on its antique row, Mixto has a warm and rustic feel. The place is not large, but its open floor plan and multilevel layout makes it feel expansive. The irony? Mixto’s website says it is going for a South Beach Miami feel.