Ethnic Flavor

South Philadelphia has always been a vibrant multiethnic neighborhood. The bustling community has been enriched by two large waves of immigration resulting in a colorful culinary quilt of flavors.

People with roots in other nations have lived here since Philadelphia was founded in 1682. From about 1880 to 1920, however, thousands of families from Italy, Russia, Poland, Ireland, Hungary, Germany and other countries dreamed of a better life in the New World.

Finding the ingredients for chicken paprika, schnitzel with spaetzle, cholent for Shabbat or pasta e fagioli was an everyday adventure for homemakers who visited the neighborhood butcher, the produce grocer, the fish store and the corner deli. Few had to venture too far from their front door to shop, though, as each neighborhood in South Philadelphia was brimming with all sorts of merchants.

Women didn’t have to worry about equipping their kitchens, either. Fante’s, which opened in 1906, stocked everything — and still does — from frying pans to pasta machines to spaetzle makers imported from Austria and Germany.

Butcher shops carried names like Esposito, Guinta, Slepack and Aaron. Several generations of the Esposito family have sold beef, pork and veal in the Italian Market for 92 years. The butcher shop burned down last year, but will reopen tomorrow.

The late Samuel Slepack, who arrived in Philadelphia around 1920 by way of Argentina from his native Russia, owned and operated a kosher butcher shop for many years at Eighth and Porter. Numerous kosher butcher shops once flourished in South Philadelphia. The last one, on Montrose Street in Queen Village, closed about seven or eight years ago when its owner, Paul Aaron, retired.

Another large wave of immigration to South Philly began in the 1970s and continues to this day. Families are arriving from Mexico, South America, island nations such as Haiti, Cuba, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic; China, Thailand, Korea and Vietnam. In today’s South Philadelphia, you can spend hours shopping in Asian supermarkets and grocery stores. Plantains and mangos, staples of South American and island cuisines, are now as ubiquitous as rice noodles and soy sauce.

Stores selling South American or Asian ingredients now share a block with Italian specialty stores — places to buy fresh and dried pasta, shops such as DiBruno’s, Claudio’s and Talluto’s, known for olive oil and cheese and so much more, and Italian bakeries. A Mexican cantina has recently opened on Ninth Street in the Italian Market and stocks everything you need to prepare authentic Mexican and Latino dishes along with the large line of Goya products.

Products were added in certain stores because merchants felt the influence of South Philly’s multiethnic population. Termini’s sells challah and hamantaschen year-round.

In honor of the ethnic, cultural and religious diversity that makes South Philadelphia great, here are classic recipes from different nations.

Cholent is an ancient stew prepared traditionally for Friday-night dinner or Saturday-afternoon lunch by Jews from all over the world. Since the Sabbath is a day of rest, a hot meal such as cholent had to be prepared ahead of time in a very low oven. Cassoulet is the French version of cholent. Cholent, a Yiddish word, comes from the old French "chald," meaning warm. Sephardic Jews from Spain, the Middle East and the Mediterranean prepare their versions called "dafina" or "adafina," from the Arabic word meaning "covered," with lamb, other meats, chick peas and lots of aromatic spices. The following is a traditional cholent from Eastern Europe.

(Sabbath Stew)


2 cups dried lima beans or Great Northern beans
Vegetable oil for browning the meat
1-1/2 pounds beef chuck, cut into 1-1/2 -inch cubes
1-1/2 pounds beef flanken, cut into large pieces
1-1/2 pounds boneless turkey thighs, cut into 1-1/2-inch cubes
2 large onions, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 medium carrots, peeled and coarsely chopped
2 ribs celery, coarsely chopped
2 parsnips, peeled and coarsely chopped
6 fat garlic cloves, minced
3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 cup dry red wine
2 heaping tablespoons tomato paste
3 large bay leaves
1 pound veal, turkey or lamb sausage, cut into 2-inch rounds
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste


Place the beans in a large pot. Add enough water to cover, bring to a boil, and cook for one minute. Remove the pot from the heat, cover and allow to stand for one hour. Drain the beans and set aside.

Place a rack in the lower third of the oven. Preheat the oven to 250 degrees.

Heat 2 tablespoons of oil in a 6-quart Dutch oven or flameproof casserole such as Le Creuset over medium heat. Working in batches, add the beef cubes, the flanken and turkey thighs. Turn occasionally, adding more oil as needed. Brown the meat on all sides and transfer with a slotted spoon to a large bowl.

Add a bit more oil to the pot and heat over medium heat. Add the onions, carrots, celery, parsnips and garlic. Saut� until the onions are just translucent, about five minutes. Stir in the wine, vinegar and tomato paste, scraping up the brown bits at the bottom of the pot. Bring the mixture to a boil and return the cooked meats to the pot. Stir in the drained beans and sausages. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Add enough cold water to cover the ingredients by about an inch.

Cover the pot and bake in the oven for at least 12 hours. A few more hours wouldn’t hurt.

Serves six to eight.

Pasta e Fagioli
(Pasta and Bean Soup)
From Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen
by Lidia Matticchio Bastianich


1/2 pound cannellini beans (white kidney beans)
3 quarts water
2 medium Idaho potatoes
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
1 bay leaf
6 slices bacon, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch strips
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling over the soup
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large carrot, peeled and coarsely shredded
1 cup canned Italian plum tomatoes (preferably San Marzano) with their liquid, crushed
Freshly ground black pepper
1/2 pound ditalini or elbow pasta
Freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese


Quick soak the beans as described in the recipe for cholent. Drain but reserve liquid.

Place the water in a 5-quart pot. Add the drained beans, potatoes, rosemary and bay leaves. Bring to a rolling boil over high heat, then adjust the heat to a gentle boil. Cook for 25 minutes.

Process the bacon and garlic to a paste in the food processor, stopping once or twice to scrape down the sides of the work bowl. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Scrape in the bacon-garlic paste and cook, stirring until golden, about five minutes. Stir in the onion and cook, stirring, until translucent, about four minutes. Stir in the carrots and cook until the onion begins to brown, about five minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes, bring to a boil, lower the heat and simmer for five minutes.

Pour 2 ladlefuls of the bean-soaking liquid into the skillet. Bring to a boil and pour the contents of the skillet into the soup pot. Season lightly with salt and pepper and bring to a slow boil. Cook until the beans are tender, about 45 minutes to one hour after adding the vegetables from the skillet.

Ladle about 1/3 of the beans, along with enough cooking liquid to cover them, into a baking dish or other shallow container where they will cool quickly. Cool the beans until they are no longer steaming. Process the beans and liquid in a food processor or blender until creamy. Return the pureed beans to the pot.

Fish out the potatoes onto a plate. Mash them coarsely with a fork and return them to the pot. Cook 10 minutes. Let the soup rest off the heat, covered, 10 to 15 minutes.

Cook the ditalini or elbows in salted water until very "al dente." Drain thoroughly and stir into the soup. Let rest for five minutes and serve in warm bowls with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

Serves six.

Note: Lidia offers her recipe for 12 servings, so I have adjusted the ingredients to serve six. This recipe can be easily doubled.

Paprikas Csirke
(Chicken Paprika)

Chicken paprika is one of Hungary’s most famous dishes. Hungarian Jews who keep kosher prepare it without sour cream while Hungarian Christians never omitted it. Either way it is simply delicious.


1 (4-pound) chicken, preferably organic or kosher, cut into serving pieces
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small onion, peeled and chopped
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons tomato paste
2 tablespoons Hungarian sweet paprika
1 cup chicken stock, preferably homemade
1 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon finely chopped Italian parsley


Pat the chicken pieces with paper towels. Sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Melt the butter and oil over medium heat in a large skillet. Saut� the chicken until golden, about five to six minutes each side. Remove the chicken from the skillet and set aside.

Drain off all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the skillet. Saut� the onion and garlic over medium heat until light brown, about six minutes. Stir in tomato paste and paprika until the onion is evenly coated. Add the stock and stir. Return the chicken to the skillet and reduce heat to low. Simmer, covered, until the chicken is done, about 30 minutes.

Remove the chicken from the skillet and keep warm. Bring the liquid to a boil, stirring constantly, until slightly reduced and thickened, about five minutes. Stir in the sour cream over low heat. Return the chicken to the skillet and heat about three to five minutes.

Place the chicken on a warm platter. Spoon remaining sauce over the chicken and sprinkle with parsley.

Serves three to four.

From The Dumpling Cookbook
by Maria Polushkin

Spaetzle means "little sparrow" in German. They are little dumplings that are formed from dough and either cut on a floured board or sieved through a spaetzle mill or colander. My Austrian-born grandmother served them with roast beef or turkey and topped with gravy. Spaetzle goes well with chicken paprika.


3 cups all flour
4 eggs
1 teaspoon salt
Several grindings of black pepper
1 cup warm water
Approximately 4 quarts of salted water


In a large bowl, combine the flour with the eggs, salt, pepper and warm water. Beat hard with a wooden spoon to form a thick, smooth batter. Continue beating for five minutes. This should be done rather energetically by scraping the dough toward you with a regular rhythm so as to incorporate as much air as possible.

Let the dough rest, covered, for 15 minutes, then beat again for another five minutes.

Bring the salted water to a boil.

If you are using a spaetzle mill, simply push the dough through it into the boiling water. If you do not have a spaetzle mill, balance a colander (the largest you own) on the rim of the pot in which the water is boiling. Make sure that the water is at least 8 inches below the colander or the dough will congeal from the steam. Use a large wooden spoon to press the dough through the holes in the colander into the water. Another way is to add a little more flour to the dough, about 1/2 cup, to stiffen it. Remove the dough to a floured board and with a sharp knife, slice into strips about 1/4-inch wide and 1/2-inch long.

Boil the spaetzle for four minutes. Drain in a large colander and rinse briefly under running water. Drain well.

Spread them out on a kitchen towel and cover them with a damp towel. They will keep for several hours.

Serves six to eight.