A vendor at the Philadelphia Italian Market. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)Earlier in the year I reposted a piece by another blogger, Osaka Saul, who originates from Philly.
He wrote a very funny post listing the things he thinks are quintessentially Philadelphian.
His post inspired me to come up with my own list of "strictly Philly" things, and ever since I've been brewing up and brainstorming everything that I love about my hometown, from the food to the lingo to the culture.
I've written about Philly before on this blog (like the time I got robbed), heck even recently I wrote a song about the shenanigans I'd get into in the summer in Philly, but I've never cataloged it like this. Consider it an insider's guide to Philadelphia.
Today, I'm tackling one aspect of Philadelphia, albeit a very large aspect. It's a wonder if I can cram it all into one post:
The Undeniable Deliciousness of Philly Food
Water Ice-- the cold, sweet treat to beat the soggy summer heat
Water Ice is a Philly thing. People outside of Philly call it Italian Ice (sometimes found in freezers of corner stores, called Rosa's or something like that), and I have even seen variations such as "Polish ice" on the South Jersey boardwalk. It is hard to describe to people who have never had it, but you could say it's somewhere in between a shaved ice and fruit sorbet. It's slushy, but not too slushy, and icy, but not too icy. It's just the thing for Philly's sticky-humid summers.
When I was growing up, Cassella's was the place to go. It was a mom and pop operation that made everything fresh on location, with real blueberries in the blueberry water ice and real chocolate chips in the chocolate water ice. Sabrina's Cafe now stands where Cassella's used to be, on Christian street between Ninth and Tenth.
For present day water ice in South Philly, John's is really good, and also made fresh on location. The lemon water ice is very refreshing and they always have good ice cream-- quality ice cream, Breyer's I think, for the gelatis (a gelati is a frozen treat of ice cream sandwiched between layers of water ice in a cup: you pick a flavor of water ice and a flavor of ice cream, say cherry water ice and chocolate ice cream, and it is so good), not that frozen "custard" crap that comes out of a carton, like at Rita's.
Never Rita's, unless it was free (I worked there in high-school and a friend of mine during college worked there).
Nothing beats Mom's home cooking, pictured above the best apple pie in the world
Cheesesteaks, because I have to
When people not from Philadelphia think of Philadelphia, they tend to thinks of one or two things: Philadelphia cream cheese (which is actually named after a small town in New York state), and the cheesesteak.
To be honest, I have no idea how my hometown became known for this particular sandwich, which consists of a long hoagie roll, sliced steak meat (usually the cheapest and fattiest cut available, rumored to be stomach lining), and your choice of provolone, American, or Whiz. Don't ask for Swiss (like John Kerry).
I like Ishkabibble's on South street because I've been going there since I was 15 (I waited that long to eat my first cheesesteak) and because it's cheap and delicious, and you won't have to wait in line for an hour like everyone does at Jim's Steaks further down the street (because they don't know any better). Tony Luke's is also awesome, it's the place where you can get big hunks of fresh provolone cheese (sharp or mild) on your sandwich, so good.
If you're a pork fan, don't forget to hit up John's Roast Pork deep down in South Philly on East Snyder. I've never been (not a pork fan), but everyone in my family loves it, and Craig LaBan says it's the best, so it must be true.
Where we buy our groceries: the Italian Market
The Italian Market is full of goodies. You can get the best bread in the world and super delicious hoagies at Sarcone's Bakery. You can get really delicious hoagies anywhere else in the Italian Market, really, but when you get one at Sarcone's it's special because it's made on the chewy and perfectly crusty Sarcone's roll. To be honest, it's hard to get a bad hoagie in Philadelphia.
For the record, a hoagie is a big sandwich on an Italian roll, generally consisting of sliced meats, cheeses, shredded lettuce, oil, vinegar, and a little bit of oregano.
For handmade pasta and delectable gravies (that's what we call sauce in Philly), there's Talutto and Superior Pasta Company.
A pizza place on every block
All you need to do is walk twenty paces and you can find good pizza in Philly. That's a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much.
When I worked uptown I would walk home and stop at three separate pizza joints on my way to get a slice. There was a mom and pop joint in the FiDi that I liked that was cheap, there was Joe's near Rittenhouse Square, Lorenzo's on South street where you get a slice as big as your head for three dollars, Gay Pizza on 13th street (which always had fun pizza combinations, including a peanut butter and jelly pizza).
Me and my cousin in front of Mack's Pizza in Wildwood, South Jersey
If you can get down to Wildwood, New Jersey, Mack's Pizza is really delicious. I think they use cheddar in their cheese mix, which lends a very tangy flavor, and makes for a very gooey (and very orange) treat.
Diners. Where you go, when there's no where else to go
There are diners everywhere in Philly (even more when you cross the bridge into New Jersey). The Oregon Diner near the Pathmark in South Philly was my favorite diner for the longest time because of their hot and crispy fries and shagtastic decor, but the last time I ate there my dad felt sick afterward, so that was it for me.
I dined at the Melrose Diner with my family to celebrate my graduation from college, and I continue to love that spot, even if it was the location of a mob murder.
The various Midtown Diners around the city are a good go-to for late night coffee and fries, and most of them serve cocktails. I also love the Snow White Diners for a quick burger and shake.
The best banh mi (in my opinion)
You know that feeling when you think you're the only person who knows about a certain establishment? It's like a secret, and you feel special. You only share the secret with a privileged few, as to keep word from getting out and spoiling what was once private and treasured. That's how it was with me and Cafe Nhu Y for the longest time.
Years passed and I felt like I was the only person to hold the key to the most delicious Vietnamese hoagie. It was sometime in 2008 when I realized the hipsters had gotten wind of the cheap sandwich sensations and Cafe Nhu Y was no longer just mine. The garlic butter on the toasted roll melds so well with the tangy marinated tofu-- I have no idea how they do it, but the way the tofu is prepared makes it taste amazing. The tofu is sliced thin and put in the toasted roll with pickled carrot and radish, cilantro and jalepenos (but I always ask for it without).
There are a bunch of Vietnamese delis and restaurants in South Philly, and quite a few of them offer their own rendition of the classic banh mi, but none of them suit my standards. There was another place in the Italian Market, called O Sandwiches, that made a tasty tofu hoagie, if not a little sweet, but they are no longer in business, unfortunately. O was my old standby if Nhu Y wasn't open.
For a quick snack, stop by a Wawa convenience store for a coffee and a Tasty Kake pie (I like the lemon pies, but all Tasty Kakes are good, though I do have a soft spot for Witchy Good Treats around Halloween time).
The Reading Terminal Market is a bustling spot full of produce vendors, hoagie joints, gyro counters, sushi restaurants, a place to buy spices and restaurant equipment, and also where you can get Bassetts Ice Cream (a Philly original), farm fresh goods from Amish Lancaster, and a heaping plate of buttery mashed potatoes and the best tuna salad sandwich ever at the Dutch Eating Place, quite possibly my favorite lunch counter, ever since my mom took me there as a kid.
That's all I have for now in terms of Philly foods. If you have any favorite spots that I missed (and I know that I missed a LOT seeing as how I didn't even begin to approach fine dining or nightlife, I'll save that for another post!), please tell me in the comments section!
I hope this guide is helpful to anyone looking for good cheap eats in Philly, because I'm all about getting the most bang out of my buck.