Although all kinds of stores have been doing business in South Philly for many years, the area is truly famous for its restaurants.
Restaurants have always played an important part in the economic growth and multiethnic flavors of South Philadelphia. Because of its strong Italian heritage, South Philly is as famous as New York’s Little Italy.
Dante & Luigi’s, 762 S. 10th St., opened its doors in 1899 and is still in business. Priori’s, 10th and Wolf streets, which some people feel is the quintessential Italian family restaurant, opened during the Great Depression. Drop in for dinner and you will probably see moms, dads and kids digging into soups, salads, antipasti and pasta. Bomb Bomb Bar-B-Que Grill & Italian Restaurant, 1026 Wolf St., serves Italian fare but is really known for its award-winning barbecued ribs and secret sauce. Villa di Roma has been on Ninth Street since the 1960s.
Marra’s Restaurant, 1734 E. Passyunk Ave., was established in 1927, but actually opened on Christian Street two years earlier. Famous folks like Kate Smith, Tommy Dorsey, Joey Giardello, Abe ("Fish") Vigoda, Jimmy Darren and pro athletes from around the country have been regulars for the equally famous brick-oven-baked pizza. For 75 years, this well-known trattoria has been owned and operated by four generations of the Marra and D’Adamo families. A mainstay in the Passyunk shopping district, Marra’s recently underwent an interior facelift and, for the first time in 75 years, accepts credit cards.
The late Sam Auspitz opened the Famous Fourth Street Deli at Fourth and Bainbridge nearly 80 years ago. His son David works his way around the eatery, greeting several generations of customers who have a hankering for authentic Jewish deli such as corned beef, Romanian pastrami, nova, "schmaltz" herring and other good things to eat.
After the fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnamese began arriving in Philadelphia. The first Vietnamese restaurant opened around that time. Chef Ha named it Saigon and picked a brownstone at 935 Washington Ave. for its home. The restaurant was closed for a while, but Ha is back orchestrating the kitchen. Like Priori’s, Saigon is a fine family restaurant.
The Sawan family left Lebanon many years ago. Mr. and Mrs. Sawan and their eight children moved to South Philadelphia and opened Cedar’s, 616 S. Second St. Mrs. Sawan makes the hummus by hand every day. The family has a taste test — if it isn’t perfect, the finicky Mrs. Sawan starts all over again.
Women feature prominently in the cucina of South Philadelphia. Unfortunately for us, Mama Bertina of La Grolla, 782 S. Second St., recently retired but the restaurant is in the capable hands of Luca Sena Jr., whose father owns Ristorante Panorama. Franca di Renza and her mother are in charge of the kitchen at Tre Scalini, 1533 S. 11th St. Franca has a loyal following.
Over at Mezza Luna, 763 S. Eighth St., Maria Forte prepares gnocchi so light and delicate, they almost float off the plate. Any type of sauce enhances these dreamy little pillows.
South Philadelphia, and most of the city, for that matter, is in the midst of a second restaurant renaissance. Many restaurants have opened from the mid-’90s to the present. L’angolo, Rosewood and Porter streets, and Lauletta’s Grille, 1703 S. 11th St., are two fine Italian BYOB trattorias.
Queen Village has truly developed within the past five years or so. At Beau Monde, 624 S. Sixth St., we find authentic Br�ton crepes, savory and sweet, and a host of French salads and entr�es.
Susanna Goihman left Caracas, Venezuela, and arrived in Miami Beach when she was 8 years old. She came to Philadelphia to go to college, fell in love with the city, and opened Azafran, her South American BYOB, on South Third Street five years ago. Queen Village is also home to Tartine, a new French bistro across from the Famous Fourth Street Deli. Chef Yves Longhi serves up hearty French fare such as coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon.
Today, South Philadelphia has a marvelous mix of restaurants where you can travel the culinary world every night of the week.
Here are recipes featuring Vietnamese, Lebanese and South American fare.
Bong Cai Xao Thit Bo
From Authentic Vietnamese Cooking: Food from a Family Table by Corinne Trang
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 large clove garlic, peeled and minced
1 scallion, root ends trimmed, cut into 1-1/2-inch-long pieces and halved lengthwise
1/2 small to medium head cauliflower, separated into florets
8 ounces beef sirloin, sliced thinly against the grain
Dash sesame oil
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 teaspoon thick soy sauce
Freshly ground black pepper
Heat the vegetable oil in a wok over high heat. Stir-fry the garlic until fragrant, about three minutes. Add the scallion and cauliflower and stir-fry for 10 to 15 minutes. Add the beef, sesame oil, fish sauce and soy sauce, and season to taste with black pepper. Stir-fry for five to 10 minutes more. Transfer to a serving dish and serve with rice.
You can substitute 8 ounces of boneless, skinless chicken breast for the beef.
Serves two, or four to six as part of a Vietnamese dinner.
(Stuffed Grape Leaves)
1 (16-ounce) jar grape leaves
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 small onion, peeled and finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 cups vegetable stock
1/4 cup white rice
3 tablespoons chopped fresh Italian parsley leaves
2 tablespoons snipped fresh dill
1 cup water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Drain the grape leaves and place in a bowl. Cover with cold water and let stand for five minutes. Drain well.
Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a 1-quart saucepan. Add the onions and garlic and cook, stirring, about two minutes. Add about 1/2 cup of the broth and bring to a boil. Add the rice, cover the saucepan, reduce the heat to simmer and cook for 20 minutes or until all liquid is absorbed. Stir in the parsley and dill.
Trim the stems from each grape leaf. Lay a leaf on a flat surface. Place a level tablespoon of the rice filling near the stem end of the leaf. Fold the sides of the leaf over the filling and roll the leaf away from you, forming a small cigar. Continue until all the rice filling is used.
Place half of the remaining grape leaves in the bottom of a heavy 3-quart saucepan. Place the rolled grape leaves on top, seam side down. Top with remaining grape leaves.
Pour the remaining 1-1/2 cups broth, water and lemon juice over the grape leaves. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer for 45 minutes, uncovered. Remove with a slotted spoon and allow to cool.
A nice variation is to add about 1/4 cup toasted pine nuts to the rice mixture. Add them when you add the parsley and dill to the pot.
Pargo a la Tipitapa
(Whole Fried Snapper with Spicy Tomato Sauce)
From Miami Spice by Steven Raichlen
Ingredients for the sauce:
3 to 4 tablespoons cider vinegar
1/2 cup water
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
3 ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
2 medium onions, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
4 tablespoons finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 to 2 jalape�o chilies, seeded and diced
For the snapper:
4 whole snappers (1-1/2 pounds each),
cleaned, gills removed, filleted if desired
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 cups fine cornmeal for dredging
4 cups vegetable oil for frying
Bring the vinegar, water, salt and pepper to a boil in a nonreactive large saucepan. Add the tomatoes, onions, garlic, tomato paste, 2 tablespoons of the parsley and the chilies and gently simmer for five minutes. Puree the sauce in a food processor or blender. Correct the seasonings, adding salt and pepper to taste.
Just before serving, rinse the fish and pat dry. Sprinkle the fish with salt and pepper. Place the cornmeal in a large bowl. Dredge the fish in the cornmeal, shaking off the excess.
Pour the oil to a depth of 2 to 3 inches in a large saut� pan or wok and heat to 350 degrees. Fry the fish, turning as necessary, until golden brown, three to four minutes total. You’ll probably need to fry the fish in several batches so as not to crowd the pan. Keep the already-fried fish warm in a 250-degree oven. Drain the fish on paper towels.
Place the snapper on a platter or plates with spicy tomato sauce spooned over it. Sprinkle with the remaining 2 tablespoons parsley and serve at once.
Note: If you can’t find really ripe tomatoes, chopped tomatoes from Italy, packaged in cartons, are a fine substitute.