Living in Philadelphia: South Philly’s Food Scene
There’s no doubt – one of the best things about living in Philadelphia is the food! And South Philadelphia has some of the best food anywhere in the country. There you’ll find the Italian Market, the oldest continually operating open-air market in the U.S.; restaurants serving cuisine from around the world; world-famous bakeries; and of course, cheesesteaks. Like everything else in Philly, the restaurant scene is full of fascinating history – from inspiring immigrant success stories, to infamous mafia legends.
Read on to learn about some of our favorite South Philly food destinations, and the stories that make the South Philly food scene so special.
Philadelphia’s Italian Market
The Italian Market, also known as “9th Street,” is the oldest continually operating open air market in the United States. Located in Bella Vista, the market is lined with curbside vendors and specialty shops of all sorts: cheese, fruits, vegetables, meats, poultry, fish, spices, coffee, pastries and even kitchenware. Amongst these shops and vendors are cafes and restaurants to be celebrated, as well. At the end of the nineteenth century, Italian immigrants arrived in droves; many of them lived in boarding houses and above the shops where they worked – and where the market exists today. and they would often live in boarding houses along the Italian Market, where they would reside above shops, and where they may find work. Antonio Palumbo, an Italian immigrant, opened the first boarding house in the neighborhood for his fellow Italians. Those who spoke very little English would arrive with Palumbo’s name pinned to their lapel, so they knew where to find work and a place to live.
Many of the same businesses exist today: Di Bruno Brothers is known for its imports and catering; Claudio’s is a must for house-made and imported cheeses; Anastasi’s Seafood for its crabs, fish, and charming dining area; Villa di Roma for its Italian dinners and meatballs; Talluto’s or Superior Pasta Company, for their ravioli’s; Sarcone’s for their “rolls;” Grassia’s for their spices; Giordano’s for their fruit and produce; Esposito’s for their meats; and Cappuccio’s for his meats and hand-made sausages. These only highlight a few, each with its own rich stories and heritage that have brought them to where they stand today.
The Italian Market is diverse and includes Latin and Asian cuisines. Tres Amigos is a butchery with store-made chorizo; Tortillarea San Román has homemade tortillas; South Philly Barbacoa was regarded by Bon Appetit in 2016 as one of the top ten restaurants in America; Kalaya’s Thai Market; and finally, Kalaya’s Thai restaurant, which came in number one on Esquire’s list of best new restaurants in America.
Philadelphia Classics: Cheesesteaks and Pretzels
Cheesesteaks are a staple of the South Philly food scene. Just a short walk down Ninth Street, passing by all of the varying awnings of the Italian market and its vendors, one can catch a flash of bright lights, not so far away. Sometimes known as “Cheesesteak Vegas” because of the competing neon signage in their perpetual face-off, Geno and Pat’s Steaks are world-renown staples of Passyunk Avenue. The original of the two, however, was Pat’s, known to be the “King of Steaks.” This landmark was rooted when Pat and Harry Olivieri, Italian-American brothers ran a hot dog and fish cake stand in the early 1930s. One day, they happened to make a chopped beef and onions sandwich on an Italian roll for themselves; a passing cab driver smelled its goodness and purchased one, and the rest is history.
In 1966, Joey Vento opened Geno’s Steaks directly across from Pat’s, offering a similar menu. Geno’s walls are decorated with hundreds of autographed photos of famous customers and police, first aid services, and bureau of investigation badges from all over the country. If one was to discriminate between the two steaks, Geno’s steaks are heavily chopped, whereas Pat’s are not. Both are open 24 hours, and rival on a busy, five-way intersection. People can be found on picnic benches devouring steaks at both facilities, all hours of the morning or night. The famous facades have been seen in many places over the years, including Philadelphia’s own Boyz to Men’s “MoTown Philly” music video. Few can pass by without indulging in the aromas and chowing down on a Philly cheesesteak.
With the original Federal Pretzel Company at 636 Federal Street, a local resident was able to make a few dollars by getting a cardboard box full of pretzels and heading to any local school: beelines of children, with change in hand, would race and elbow one another to be the first to purchase a hot pretzel off the press, during recess. This pretzel legacy all began when Maria and Giuseppe Nacchio’s small Italian-American Italian artisan bread bakery began baking baked-style soft pretzels. The Nacchio’s son, Edmund, saw a business opportunity in the 1920s and he started a factory to bake them in larger quantities. With the assistance of a conveyor system of equipment, imported from Germany, the family recipe would give rise to the Federal Pretzel Baking Company in 1940. Today, the original building no longer houses the factory, but we see these pretzels and versions of them at Phillies games, bodegas, newsstands, festivals, or in the hand of a postman…they have left a mark as a must-have in Philadelphia. If you are ever in doubt of a small token of appreciation for a Philadelphian, a box of fresh pretzels will always elicit a thankful smile.
South Philly Food: Famous Restaurants and Local Legends
Italian restaurants, famous patrons, and infamous episodes
A couple blocks north, just above the Italian Market, in Bella Vista, locals adore the oldest family-run Italian restaurant in America, at 121 years old: Ralph’s. Yes, Sinatra’s been here. And Taylor Swift. And Theodore Roosevelt (on his way to the Republican Convention). And, yes, President Joe Biden, Jr., when he was in the Senate, in Delaware. It is truly reminiscent of the Italian restaurants that one frequents when in Europe, with the similar design in table setup and basic linens, and chatter. Known for its no-frills, old school traditional Italian dinners in an old Bella Vista rowhome, Ralph’s never disappoints, and has a faithful following amongst its Bella Vista and Society Hill neighbors.
South Philly also is the site of Dante’s and Luigi’s Corona di Ferro, a fabulous restaurant. This is a home run in every way, and regarded as “Dante and Luigi’s,” by locals. Located in the heart of the Italian Market and once called Corona di Ferro (“iron crown”), Italian immigrants would make their way to 10th and Catherine to find a job in the kitchen and a room to board upstairs. Italian-born Philadelphian Michael DiRocco purchased the Victorian home in 1899 and transformed it into a restaurant that is unforgettable in every way. Upon his passing, his sons Dante and Luigi rebranded the name, adding their own. It had been in the family several generations and continued to be a success.
Dante and Luigi’s was also the scene of a shooting. The mob scene in Philadelphia was rampant in the late 1980’s, and was rumored to be a popular hangout amongst mobsters. In 1989, on Halloween night, a man came in with a paper bag over his head and shot mobster Nicky Scarfo Jr. several times; Scarfo survived, and left town.
In 1996, the restaurant was sold to Michael and Connie LaRussa. The new owners made a commitment to restore the building and used recipes that have been passed down for generations in their family. The food makes people keep coming back for more! President Joe Biden, Jr. is rumored to have a house account!
Dinner and a Serenade
Just a bit deeper into South Philadelphia, and into its Passyunk neighborhood, lies a restaurant that holds a special place in the heart of South Philly and its residents: The Victor Cafe. There have been many operatic restaurants throughout time, but none with a history like this. Its founder, John DiStefano, immigrated in 1908 and saved his money to open Victor Record, a Victrola shop in 1918. Also known as a gramophone shop, he worked purchasing and selling Camden’s Victor Talking Machine Company’s personal victrolas, and its Victor records. Italian immigrants, far away from home or homesick, were eager to hear records of Italian opera for a small fee. In The Victor Cafe, these men would sip espresso, eat spumoni, and listen to records of their “paesanos.”
In 1933 DiStefano bought a liquor license, and converted his record shop into a cafe. During dinner, he would sit in the back room and play opera records, and often, patrons would stand up and sing along. Hundreds of renown operatic singers’ portraits and signed photos paper the walls upstairs and downstairs, as DiStefano’s collections and reputation grew. After DiStefano’s death, in 1979, a waiter, who happened to also be an opera singer, sang along with a customer. This inspired the new tradition of operatic waitstaff in its entirety. Patrons now enjoy the Italian cuisine here along with an aria, announced with the shake of a dinner bell.
Throughout the years, Victor’s Cafe has continuously reinvented themselves and their tenacity shows today. During the covid pandemic, like many restaurants, The Victor’s Cafe was forced to temporarily close; however, they were able to find a way to make their dedicated staff of opera singers still earn a living— they opened up their small balcony and had the singers sing to the public at specific hours and accept tips.
South Philly Bakeries and Sweet Treats
Finally, everyone likes to end on a sweet note and there are two pastry shops that come to mind: Isgro’s and Termini’s bakeries. Isgro’s was founded in 1904, and is the oldest family-owned pastry shop in Philadelphia. Gus, grandson of the original owners, Mario and Crucificia Isgro, with the help of his extended family, continues to produce traditional Italian pastries the old-fashioned way; they are the only bakery in Philadelphia that still hand-fills your cannoli with a spoon once you have chosen to have ricotta, chocolate, or vanilla cream fillings.
Termini’s Bakery was founded in 1921 by brothers Giuseppe and Gaetano Termini, who immigrated to Philadelphia in 1920. Termini’s has created multiple locations and Mr. Joseph Termini (“Giuseppe”) was known to wear his baker’s hat well into his old age and walk the shop to hand out oversized cupcakes to any small child who would enter his shop. All in all, one can not go wrong with either of these two bakeries, as they are always both high in demand and well frequented. One “well-kept secret” is that Mr. Joseph Termini’s son has a cafe, Mr. Joe’s Cafe, just across the street from Termini’s bakery: it has limited hours, is tiny, cash-only, and offers home-made Italian meals, soups and desserts that can leave one speechless. It is that good.
In sum, South Philadelphia has one heck of a food situation. Society Hill, Bella Vista, Pennsport, Delaware River Waterfront, Old City…and Rittenhouse…and even The Art Museum — residents needn’t go far to stumble upon amazing, amazing eateries. Between the history of the struggles, and the arias that accompany them, there’s always a cannoli not far away. The question is, do you want It spooned or piped?
If you’re considering a move to South Philadelphia, let Maxwell Realty help you find the perfect apartment, condo, or single family home for you. Contact us to get started.
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