“Ah this guy makes the best meatballs in South Philly!” I’m touring Philadelphia’s Italian Market – a name that’s historically accurate but now, thanks to many excellent Mexican and Vietnamese food businesses, something of a misnomer – and my hugely knowledgeable guide, trained chef Jacquie, has bumped into another person she knows.
They chat happily about the market, his restaurant, his granddaughter helping after school – “she makes better meatballs than her mother, I’m leaving the place to her!” He invites me to pop by later – “if you’re not too full” (a state that, as you’ll see, doesn’t exist in Philadelphia). What a nice man, I think, as he shakes my hand. As we stroll away, Jacquie asks me if I’ve seen The Irishman. I look around for someone in a green rugby top, before realising she means the Martin Scorsese movie. She gestures back to where my new meatball-expert friend is waving a cheery goodbye from his doorway and says: “Joe Pesci plays his uncle.” My eyes widen, and I wonder about the consequences for local horses and my bed linen if I decline this meatball…
I tell the story to my Uber driver later as he takes me to the airport. Having already made sure I’ve eaten all the classic Philly dishes, he laughs and nods, satisfied. “All the food, and a Mob story.” He offers a fist bump. “You did Philly right…”
Subscribe to The Week
Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.
Philly punches way above its weight
I’m jumping ahead but, frankly, time passed so quickly on this whistle-stop, three-and-a-bit day tour of Philadelphia that I might as well start at the end; knackered but happy, considerably fatter than I arrived, reasonably versed in the city’s culture and history, at least three friends richer, and more than a little in love with this brilliant city.
Things start as they’ll go on: at pace and with many calories. My flight is delayed, my arrival problematical – par for the course these days – but, thanks to the airport being a 20-minute ride from the city centre, I manage to check-in, shower and enjoy the exceptional views across to City Hall from my corner room at the W Philadelphia before I meet Mike View in the hotel lobby.
Mike is something of a local legend thanks to his fundraising, food knowledge and Instagram account, Pancakes and Protein Shakes. His partner, Alissa, has lived here for a decade and works for the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau (the people who helped organise my trip) and, for an introduction into Philly’s food culture, a better couple you could not meet. Mind you, I doubt they could find a more willing visitor. Or one about to be so grateful for the lycra-content of his jeans.
I’ve been fortunate enough to visit many of the world’s great food cities, and Philadelphia might just out cater the lot of them. Seriously. For variety, for crowd-pleasers, for generosity of spirit, for sheer bloody deliciousness, for history and for all round, city-wide enthusiasm, Philly punches way above its weight. Just about every conversation I have touches on (or fully revolves around) food. If I’d tried every spot recommended to me for a sandwich – be it a sub, hoagie, the Philly Cheese or, as some say, the “true” sandwich of Philadelphia, the Italian roast pork – I’d still be there. Frankly, that’s not a bad idea.
Simple, old school and so good
Some express concern later that I didn’t visit Pat’s – the originators of the Philly Cheesesteak – or Geno’s, the arch rival that set up literally across the street, on the opposite corner of 9th and Passyunk. I’ve seen them. I’ve read the story. But, thanks to Mike, I’ve been shown Angelo’s and there’s no going back. “Angelo’s make all the bread on site,” explains Mike, dough that will either be the base of some of the best pizza I’ve ever eaten, or the roll for one of the sandwiches on the menu. Or, indeed, none of the above. “Sometimes Danny, the owner, decides the bread’s not good enough,” Mike said, “doesn’t open and gives the bread away for free.” Happily this is not one of those days. Unwrapping my first proper Philly Cheesesteak, Mike explains that this is beef, with Cooper Sharp (a local cheddar-like cheese) and onion. It’s simple, it’s old school and, frankly, it’s so good it makes my eyes roll back in my head, ditto that pizza.
From there, Mike and Alissa take me to more of their favourites, leaving me to speculate how they stay so lean and why I haven’t been to Philly earlier (although my doctor, bathroom scales and blood pressure are grateful I haven’t). At Mike’s BBQ, there’s a barbecue brisket “cheesesteak” which is, frankly, genius, and a smoked chicken take on the same, as well as a selection of other meats and sides that rival anything I’ve eaten in the more famous barbecuing states. We divert for another cheesesteak at Woodrow’s, where the house-made cheese sauce is truffled and the beef-and-cheese mix is stirred through with a cherry pepper mayo. From there, we squeeze in another Philly signature, the water ice – think firm slushy/soft sorbet – and loop back to John’s Water Ice, which has been cooling Philadelphians down since 1945. And from there we do the only thing we can do: head to dinner.
River Twice is one of South Philly’s newest, most acclaimed spots and it’s not hard to see why. Cooking is precise and clean, but chef Randy Rucker – a Texan native and James Beard nominee – knows when to be creative and when to leave things alone. There are foams, there are dashis and other licks of Asian flavours, but there’s also a dry aged wagyu that’s off-the-scale and the Mother Rucker burger, which is as straightforward, and as delicious, as can be. We roll out, and the shutters are starting to fall but the promise of another water ice – a more modern take at the nearby Demilio’s – keeps the jet lag at bay for a while longer. Sleep, when I do make it back to the W, however, is deep, contented and calorie-induced.
A much-needed energy boost
The following morning is spent in the company of Irene Levy Baker, author of 100 Things To Do In Philadelphia Before You Die and Unique Eats and Eateries of Philadelphia. She’s a Philly-expert and human dynamo and, like yesterday’s guides, remarkably thin in the face of citywide temptation. It is, however, a brilliantly walkable city – thanks to William Penn, it was the first US city to be built in an easily navigable grid system – which is probably just as well.
Breakfast – officially a 20-minute walk away but closer to ten at Irene’s speed – is on the edge of Chinatown at Ray’s Café & Tea House, celebrated for its Taiwanese teas and strong-brewed siphon coffee. Food is possible and looks great but, for once, the willpower rubs off on me. The coffee though is super: punchy, strong, smooth, rich and the accompanying cubes of coffee jelly make it feel all the more authentically Chinese.
It also turns out to be a much-needed energy boost, which will be necessary to keep up with this morning’s guide, chef Joseph Poon. According to legend, Joseph arrived in Philadelphia from Hong Kong with $8 in his pocket. Flash forward several decades, and he’s the man behind several restaurants, an award-winning book, and many TV appearances (often carving watermelon into the profiles of celebrities). He whizzes around Chinatown at speeds that suggest we should all switch to a Chinese diet: he disappears around a corner, I follow two seconds behind and, somehow, Joseph is already 40 metres down the road, waving me into another shop, café, temple or restaurant showing me ways to dine and save money – “eat better, eat smarter!” – before he and his former business partner Michael Chow attempt to kill us with kindness and enough food to feed a family at the Sang Kee Peking Duck House.
Bars in unusual spaces
The afternoon is spent enjoying a couple of Philadelphia’s many craft breweries. Having a great beer scene isn’t an original hook – show me an American city that isn’t knocking craft brewing out of the park – but both Yard’s Brewing (motto: “Brew Unto Others”) and Love City Brewing are making, and doing, very good things in the name of community and sustainability. There is a little food – there’s always food – in the form of sweet snackage and a fascinating tour of Shane’s Confectionery, which dates back to 1911 making it America’s oldest dedicated candy store, and Franklin Fountain who continue to make things the traditional soda-fountain way. If you grew up reading American literature or watching American movies, both are fascinating glimpses into US food history.
Dinner – with, after yesterday’s epic graze, my new brother-from-another-mother Mike and sister-from-another-mister Alissa – is at Double Knot, from chef Michael Schulson who, based on his website appears to own most of Philadelphia. Double Knot – pan-Asian inspired with excellent sushi – is quite unprepossessing on arrival, a simple bar space, a handful of tables… and then you’re led downstairs into a hypercool, intimate and cleverly lit basement that makes you realise quite why Schulson is so successful.
We follow that with a nightcap (or two) at Franklin Mortgage Investment Company. Philadelphia has carved out quite the niche in “unmarked” bars and bars in unusual spaces and Franklin is a fine example. The danger that such places could take themselves too seriously is quickly undermined by the tongue-in-cheek menu, and (well-crafted) in-house creations such as “Per My Last E Mail”, and “I’m Reliable Sources”.
10,000+ steps before the eating starts… again
Philadelphia has played a major part in American history and I can’t come this far without seeing such important sites. So, with the city just waking up, a stroll through City Hall, under the statue of William Penn staring across the city, puts me in the right frame of mind for this crucial dip into Philadelphia history… And I can report that, yes, people really do run up the steps of the Museum of Art and the Rocky statue is absolutely worth seeing.
“Museum Mile” is a genuinely impressive thing. The only street in the city not on the grid system, the Benjamin Franklin Parkway – modelled after the Champs-Élysées – is the cultural and educational centre of the city, and home to art collections including the Rodin Museum, the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University (the natural history museum), the Franklin Institute (think science museum) and the Free Library of Philadelphia to name but a handful. You’ll also find Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE sculpture en route for that obvious photo opp.
This early morning 10,000+ steps also makes me feel slightly better about the inevitable eating that’s going to follow. Alongside – well, frequently trailing just behind – the ever energetic and expert Irene, I spend the morning exploring her home neighbourhood of Rittenhouse, a very fine part of the city dotted with parks, cafes and restaurants, and some very impressive architecture. Starting point however is Federal Donuts – for coffee, a quick sugar rush, and some first-rate fried chicken which proves an unconventional if delicious breakfast. We graze through some of Rittenhouse’s many food places, from the new such as Mac Mart – mac and cheese in myriad delicious forms – to the old such as Di Bruno Bros, a very well-stocked deli with an excellent cheese counter. Best of all though is Goldie whose refreshing and cooling (and vegan) tahini shake is one of the best things of the trip.
‘A city that roots for the underdog’
Lunch is a self-imposed light affair at Vernick Coffee Bar, at the city’s impressive Four Seasons hotel. It’s a lovely space, and the gazpacho undoes (surely?) some of the last two days’ excesses. Sure, there’s also an exceptional brown butter chocolate chip cookie, but then I’m also sitting with Danielle Seipp, the hotel’s head baker so I’m slightly obliged to sample something she made.
Philly-born and bred, Danielle is – like everyone I meet – a big fan of the city and spends as much time asking me where I’ve eaten and what I ate as I do asking her for recommendations. “It’s such an amazing city,” she said. “The food scene is wonderful – and just keeps getting better.”
Danielle’s list is long, but many of her suggestions – “Ba Le Bakery for banh mi – there are a bunch of spots on Washington Avenue, there’s a big Vietnamese community there – and there’s this Tibetan place in Roxborough, White Yak, for the super spicy chilli momos” – are independent and international. “That’s one of the things I love most about Philly, how we support the little places,” she added. “Philly is a city that roots for the underdog.”
There’s a certain irony to Danielle’s comments as I’m guided around the Four Seasons. Its location, the top floors of the Comcast Center, is Philadelphia’s tallest building, towering 60 storeys above the city with views that take my breath away – although that could also be abject terror. Seriously, there are days when the views from the Jean-Georges restaurant – or the eye-popping infinity pool on the 57th floor – are hampered by clouds.
An up-and-coming neighbourhood
The afternoon is spent back on terra firma and in the proper history of Independence Mall, four blocks of the city that house locations such as such as Independence Hall – where the Founding Fathers met in 1776 to sign the Declaration of Independence – the National Constitution Center, the Benjamin Franklin Museum and, of course, the Liberty Bell Center. It’s little wonder this patch of the city is known as “the birthplace of American democracy”.
Dinner takes me to one of Philadelphia’s up-and-coming neighbourhoods, Fishtown. As the name suggests, this region on the Delaware River was home to the city’s fishing industry. These days gentrification is kicking/has kicked in and the area is at the centre of the city’s art, music and culinary scenes.
At the forefront of the latter is Michael Solomonov (also the man behind that tahini shake), whose restaurant Laser Wolf is… well, the place I had my best meal of 2022. This Israeli-themed, semi-industrial room is named (with a deliberate cooler misspelling) after the butcher in Fiddler On The Roof and, appropriately, serves great grilled meats (plus fish and vegetables, because, well, this is the 21st century). Main courses come alongside bowls of salatim which are a meal in themselves. Hummus and (ethereal) pita. Beans with harissa. Assorted pickles. Babaganoush. And, six or seven other dishes. Plus, if you’re so inclined, the best chips I’ve eaten in the US, alongside a tahini ketchup that’s life changing. Laser Wolf features in the Philadelphia episode of Somebody Feed Phil on Netflix where you can watch Phil Rosenthal and Patton Oswalt have similar reactions to me over the food.
Rolling out of Laser Wolf, I’m met by Melissa, the Fishtown resident who’s drawn the short straw of entertaining the visiting Brit. Happy hours are then spent at Evil Genius Brewing, which has some of the best named beers in Christendom – such as “Is Butter A Carb?”, “I Love Lamp”, and “Purple Monkey Dishwasher”. And at Barcade, a pub with a vast range of beers and an even larger collection of classic video games and pinball machines, a combination of fun things that go so well together under a pun so obvious I’m amazed I didn’t think of it.
The best sandwich in America?
And so the final day and a Philly must visit: Reading Terminal Market. Again with Irene’s knowledge and connections, what could have been a daunting experience – my willpower/indecision and some 80 different food suppliers under one roof – becomes a rather more efficient affair. My main target however was long decided: Tommy DiNic’s roast pork sandwich. Adam Richman declared it the best sandwich in America and, yeah, he may have a point.
As mentioned above, some declare roast pork as the true Philadelphia sandwich. Personally, I just love the fact that someone was clearly appeasing a mum in its invention: the classic filling is slow cooked meat, provolone and broccoli rabe. Actually, the greenery provides much needed texture, and that slight bitterness is a welcome foil to the rich proteins. It also allows me to say “well, I had vegetables” and justify a cookie, a soft pretzel and a taste of the mozzarella made on site by Valley Shepherd Creamery before heading to lunch, via a yomp around Midtown to study some of Philly’s many impressive murals.
There’s getting on for 4,000 such public works of art across the city – the most, it’s claimed, of any city in the world – an anti-graffiti campaign that’s taken on a life of its own. They’re colourful, clever, stylish, and frequently political. One of them features Edmund Bacon, liberal activist, celebrated architect and the former executive director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission, who helped shape Philly as it is today. Even so, he’s probably now best known – via one degree of separation – as Kevin Bacon’s dad.
Old taverns and powerful cooking
Lunch is at McGillin’s Olde Ale House – a pub that has earned its “olde”. Opening in 1860 (the year before Abraham Lincoln became president) it’s survived two world wars, prohibition, two pandemics, and is the city’s oldest continuously operating tavern. It’s part tourist destination, to be sure, but it’s also a great pub, with 30 beers on draft and a menu of crowd pleasers. The Reuben sandwich is completely unnecessary, of course, but very good indeed although I’m regretting the second half by stop four on the Italian Market tour by StrEATS of Philly. My guide Jacquie Kelly is knowledgeable and well-connected, and the market – the oldest continuous open air market in the US – is fascinating. It also enables me to tick off the other Philly classic dish I’ve been yearning to try, the tomato pie. It is, essentially, a pizza that’s heavy on the sauce and non-existent on the toppings, save for a sprinkling of parmesan cheese. It’s a deceptively simple slice of comfort eating that leaves you beaming.
Dinner is, obviously, excessive but when has that ever stopped me? Besides, Kalaya Thai Kitchen is further proof that the Italian Market is far more cross cultural than the name suggests, female run – by chef Nok Suntaranon – and a James Beard Award finalist. It has also subsequently shut down and relocated to much bigger premises in Fishtown. One forkful in, you can see why they needed more space. This is powerful cooking, with a level of spicing that has not been modified for an American palate. There’s also a great sense of fun with dumplings made to look like birds and a tom yum soup decorated with bits of shellfish in showstopping style.
And so, shirt now strained and stained, I roll into an Uber and head for my flight home. If you’re one of the many Brits who happily pop over to New York and Boston for weekend visits, cast that net further. Philadelphia is an absolute cracker of a city. Sure, you’re going to need the stretchy pants, but it’s an absolute cracker.
Neil Davey was a guest of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau (discoverphl.com), British Airways and the W Philadelphia. British Airways operates three flights a day to Philadelphia from London Heathrow, prices start from around £500 return; britishairways.com. Room rates at the W Philadelphia start at approximately $320 (£260) per night; marriott.co.uk
Continue reading for free
We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.
Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.