“Unique Eats and Eateries of Philadelphia,” by Irene Levy Baker, offers a guide to restaurants across the city, including South Philly.
On sweltering summer days about a century ago, a local man wandered the streets of South Philly selling water ice from a pushcart.
One morning, the harried frozen treat-maker lifted his garage doors ready to start his route, only to find his block lined with people along Oregon Avenue.
This time, they were coming to him.
Today, the site is more commonly known as Pop’s Water Ice, which continues to be managed by the man’s descendents.
This little-known story is one of several hidden grub gems revealed by local author Irene Levy Baker in her latest book, “Unique Eats and Eateries of Philadelphia,” a beacon of pointers to cuisines across the city, highlighting the tips, tricks and backstories of more than 90 eateries — nearly 40 of which call South Philly home.
“This book that just came out tells the story behind 90 Philadelphia restaurants and food destinations,” Baker said. “And it’s full of tips like how to get reservations at the hottest restaurants, where to get free soup with lunch, where you can get a vertical gelato tasting that’s not on the menu and other special things.”
Baker, who penned 2016’s “100 Things To Do In Philadelphia Before You Die,” the Philly installment of a national series by Reedy Press LLC, is not actually a local native, as she’s lived around the country, including the South and Midwest.
But, after relocating and eventually settling in the city during the early 1990s, Baker found herself struck by the culture, cuisine and community of the city, saying she’s convinced she’s always been meant to be a Philadelphian.
After moving here, she worked for the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau for about a decade before starting her own firm called Spotlight Public Relations in 1998, which specializes in publicizing restaurants and hospitality industries.
Although tackling fieldwork for more than 90 restaurants seems extensive, for Baker this investigation kicked off several years ago.
“I’ve been doing the research for the 25 years I’ve been in Philadelphia,” Baker said. “Some restaurants, I knew what the story was going to be. Some restaurants I thought I knew what the story was going to be and, as I interviewed them and talked to them, it changed. And some restaurants, I didn’t know what their story was going to be, and as I talked to them, I found their story.”
After Reedy Press approached Baker about this new project, she immediately took up the offer, dedicating the following several months to interviewing chefs, tasting dishes or simply wandering quarters of the city until she discovered somewhere unexpected.
While the book offers a variety of advice, such as how to get into speakeasies (and how to not get kicked out of them,) a predominant portion of the publication shares the heartfelt and unforeseen histories of each eatery.
“Doesn’t it make food taste better if you know who’s making it?” Baker said.
While the book’s content stretches around the city, even spilling into Pennsylvania and New Jersey suburbs, South Philly serves as a cornerstone.
From the story of a bungled mob hit at Dante and Luigi’s to the whereabouts of unsung Mexican restaurants, Baker says, unlike other neighborhoods, the diversity of this area makes it almost impossible to clump the region into one food category.
“The interesting thing about South Philly is what a mix of cuisines there is,” Baker said.
Whether a native or newcomer, whether one’s looking for an upscale meal or quick service, Baker says “Unique Eats and Eateries of Philadelphia” aims to enlighten all Philadelphians about the assortment of delights the city has to offer.
“We Philadelphians appreciate good restaurants, and we’re willing to try new things. … I hope the book just gives (readers) a real taste of Philadelphia and the variety of restaurants that we have here,” she said. “And maybe, they’ll discover some new places even if they’ve been here 25 years, like I have.”
Info Box: “Unique Eats and Eateries of Philadelphia” can be purchased at Barnes and Noble, www.uniqueeatsphilly.com/ or https://www.amazon.com/Unique-Eateries-Philadelphia-Irene-Baker/dp/1681061414.
For those who readers who mention the South Philly Review, Baker will sign your copy.