The Old World Charm of South Philly
Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and other Founding Fathers come to mind when thinking about Philadelphia's role in American history. But Thaddeus Kosciuszko? I had never heard about this polish-born Revolutionary War hero whose house still sits at the corner of 3rd and Pine streets. Koscuiszko fought for the liberty of all men and women; and he not only captured British redcoats -- he captured my heart. Some fascinating bits of history don't make it into school textbooks, but they’re often discovered during city tours.
Dan and I first heard about Kosciuszko during a Big Bus Tour in Philadelphia. The guide, who not coincidentally was polish, told us that Kosciuszko arrived in the city in 1776. With a revolutionary spirit, he joined the Continental Army as an engineer. Soon, he became a war hero because his brilliantly designed ramparts helped win the war. But his heroism echoed for centuries beyond that; he championed for Native Americans, slaves, and women – way ahead of his time. He once said, “I don’t want to fight only for nobles, I want freedom for the whole nation, and only for it I will give away my life.” Later, when Kosciuszko returned to Poland, he left his Last Will in the hands of friend Thomas Jefferson, directing him to sell his American property upon his death and use the money to free and educate as many slaves as possible, including Jefferson’s own slaves. Kosciuszko was “as pure a sign of liberty as I have ever known,” according to Jefferson. Yet, he never honored his old friend’s request. Still, Kosciuszko’s story epitomizes the true meaning to this “City of Brotherly Love.”
In early April, Dan and spent three days in South Philly and embraced the “brotherly love” as much as it embraced us. We arrived just as thousands of Japanese cherry trees were bursting into pink blooms. These blossoms, which have a short lifespan, symbolize both vitality and mortality. Japan presented the trees to the city in 1926 to honor America’s 150th anniversary of independence.
We spent most of our time in the Bella Vista neighborhood which is within easy walking distance of everything on our agenda. Street parking is limited, but there’s ample space in a parking garage above the Fresh Foods market a few blocks away.
Day 1 - Since we couldn't check into our room at the Bella Vista B&B until 1 p.m., we parked the car and walked a few blocks to the corner of 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue for an obligatory tasting at the famous cheese steak joints, Geno's and Pat's King of Steaks. These city institutions have been rivals for decades. Both places were abuzz with locals and tourists; we stood in line, ready to compare their classic sandwiches which are traditionally served with Cheez Whiz and fried onions on Italian bread. We ordered a sandwich at each place and split them. We found one to be way better than the other - just not the same one. Go figure.
Bella Vista B&B - We checked into the B&B, an 1860s townhouse on 10th Street owned by Dan McGowan and his wife Barbara Ross. The tree-lined neighborhood is steeped in Italian heritage, and bells from nearby St. Paul’s, the “parish of the Italian Market,” chime every half hour during the day.
The innkeeper, Suellen Stretch, greeted us like old friends and showed us to our quarters - The La Grande Suite, which is graced by period furnishings and paintings. We felt at home immediately. The cozy suite has a queen-size brass bed on the main floor and another bed in the loft. A galley kitchen had a nicely stocked fridge with breakfast items. Also, just a few steps away, fresh bread, bagels and croissants were available for guests each morning. Large windows overlook the street so we could watch the neighborhood come to life while drinking coffee in the dining nook.
In the evening, sitting on the 19th century porch put us in the mood to be downright neighborly. Area residents walked by carrying market bags and perhaps a bottle of wine and offered a friendly nod, but today’s lifestyle doesn’t lend itself to chit-chat.
Italian Market - After unpacking, we headed to the nearby 9th Street Italian Market. Along the way, mingling aromas of garlic, fresh bread and herbs whetted our appetites for an early dinner. Italian immigrants opened the outdoor market, the oldest in the country, in the 1880s.
Over the years, it has become more diverse, featuring numerous Asian and Mexican items. By mid-afternoon, it was alive with activity as mom and pop vendors sold their wares, fresh produce and seafood. The street is also lined with cafes, bakeries, and specialty shops selling a variety of foods, kitchen gagets, and and bits and bobs. We spent quite a bit of time at DiBruno Bros. which has been a market staple since brothers Danny and Joe opened it in 1939. Here, wheels of artisan cheeses are the size of a Frisbee, sausage, pasta and sauces line the shelves, and barrels and trays are filled with an array of olives.
Did I mention that the Philly trip was also part of the “Martino Quest” we started last year after Dan discovered 30 “Martino” restorantes, pizzerias and trattorias around the world? We plan to visit as many as possible. While in Philly, we set aside a night to dine at Mr. Martino’s Trattoria, a South Philly classic on Passyunk Avenue. When travelling, we also search for a nearby watering hole to call our “local.” We chose The Wishing Well, a public house on 9th Street which has several microbrews on tap and also an extensive menu. We stopped by for a drink on our way home from the market. Imagine our surprise when our super-friendly bartender Alana told us that Christopher Martino owns the pub! We’d be back!
That evening, we walked the half block to Dante & Luigi's, a city landmark and allegedly the oldest Italian restaurant in the country. This family-owned gem has been in the neighborhood since 1899 and once played a huge part in the city’s Italian immigrant history. As we waited for our entrees to arrive, we sipped on a fine Barolo and tucked ourselves into the restaurant’s heartwarming story. The original owners, like many immigrants, had entrepreneurial spirits and generous hearts. They offered fellow Italians a place to stay after they arrived at the city docks. Although the newcomers couldn’t speak English, they pinned the name of the restaurant to their shirts and were taken there. Here, they found lodging on the upper floor and jobs in the market district.
Our dining experience was as memorable as the restaurant’s history. Dan raved about his Osso Bucco and I had a remarkable gnocchi dish. Tommy, our server, was attentive and charming. After dinner, he suggested several dessert choices, but we seldom indulge in sweets unless it’s creme brulee. Since the dessert wasn’t on the menu, we set out on a mission through South Philly to find some. No luck, so we returned to the restaurant and Tommy brought us a delightful Tiramusu which we washed down with a nice Valpolcella.
Day 2 - The next morning we walked to the Independence Visitors Center at 5th and Market streets to catch the hop-on-hop-off Big Bus Tour. These city tours provide a great way to see city landmarks and discover fascinating facts, such as Kosciuszko’s heartwarming story. We also learned that Philadelphia became known as the “City of Murals” after its Mural Arts Program was founded in 1984. We got a glimpse of several of the 3000 plus stunning murals along the tour route. This outdoor art museum helps supports working artists and also rehabilitates graffiti artists. The city also features over 100 mosaic murals; many are the masterpieces of Isaiah Zagar who designed Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens on South Street where bicycle wheels, plates, mirrors, colorful bottles, and other trash-turned-to-treasure comes to life with amazing stories if you take the time to listen. One of his dazzling mosaics can also be seen at the Black N Brew cafe on Passyunk Avenue.
My favorite part of the tour was cruising along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, the city’s own Champs-Elysees which is lined with museums and sculptures. Here, we heard the haunting story of the bronze Joan of Arc statue that was sculpted by Emmanuel Fremiet in 1898. A young girl named Valerie Laneau modeled for the piece. In an eerie coincidence, Valerie was born in Domremy, France, the same village where Joan was born – and on January 6, the same day and month. The model also died, engulfed in flames from an oil lamp, on May 30, the anniversary of Joan’s death.
We hopped off at the Philadelphia Museum of Art which features American and European paintings, photos and other art from the 18th and 19th centuries. This is also where the famed “Rocky Balboa” statue and steps are located. We stopped for a few “touristy” pictures by the statue and then climbed the 72 legendary steps. Dan was determined to rise to the “Rocky” challenge and ran up the steps, all guts and glory. Me? I took my time and kept turning around to gaze at the city’s skyline. Unfortunately, when Dan triumphantly raised his arms a la Rocky, I missed a great photo op.
We spent quite a bit of time at the museum, but of course there’s never enough time to absorb it all. I was drawn to several of Charles Wilson Peale’s pieces, especially Rachael Weeping, a 1776 portrait of his wife and their daughter Margaret who died a few years earlier of smallpox.
Next tour stop for us was “19” which is within walking distance of The City Tavern, where we had lunch. Our Founding Fathers frequented this (recreated) 18th century tavern when the revolution was brewing. Except for a young diners texting, we stepped back in time to enjoy authentic colonial libations and one of the best meals ever; servers were even dressed in period garb. Dan started with a flight of beer brewed from the special recipes of our Founding Fathers. I opted for a raspberry shrub made with yummy rum. The menu included several colonial recipes; some were from the personal files of early presidents. We chose a scrumptious turkey pot pie which came with a side of noodles smothered in a rich beef sauce reduction – served on pewter dishes. And for dessert they offered a crème brulee that lived up to our expectations! Once we broke through the caramelized sugar, we captured the delicate nuances of custard and vanilla bean before our spoon even left the dish. You can read Dan's Kindred Spirits feature by clicking HERE.
After lunch we walked to Carpenter’s Hall where the first Continental Congress met in 1774, and then on to Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were adopted. Just across the street, the Liberty Bell Center houses the famous icon of America’s independence. Visitors can view a video and exhibits to learn about the Liberty Bell’s history. When sunlight hits the bell, a golden aura is cast below its inscription from Leviticus 25:10, “Proclaim Liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” The bell wasn’t called the “Liberty Bell” until the 1830s when a group of abolitionists took the inscription to heart and adopted the bell as their symbol of liberty and freedom.
We ended the day with another cruise through the Italian Market. Deciding to forgo a formal dinner, we bought a chunk of cheese, sausage, and some olives at DiBruno’s and a loaf of bread at Sarcone’s Bakery. This family owned bakery has been on 9th Street since 1918 and has the best bread in town, according to locals. The fare went well with another bottle of Valpolicella waiting at home.
Day 3 – It rained our last day in the city, so we spent most of our time at the B&B writing “good life” features. With umbrella in hand, we walked to The Wishing Well for lunch and settled into a corner table beside a stack of board games. Erik, another pleasant bartender on staff, took our orders. He’d heard that we wanted to meet owner Christopher Martino, who lives upstairs (true to public house tradition) and offered to call him down for a chat. For more about our visit here, click HERE to read Dan's recent “Martino Quest” feature.
After a fantastic lunch, there wasn’t much room for dessert, but we couldn’t resist a visit to Isgro’s Pasticceria. This generational institution has been on Christian Street since 1904, and locals say it has the best cannoli anywhere. Bakery cases were lined with a variety of cakes and pastries – all works of art – but we chose the recommended cannoli. The young lady behind the counter spoon-filled a shell for each of us, a ritual that keeps them crisp, then gently placed the delicacies in a box and tied it with string. These sweet treats certainly lived up to their reputation!
While we had planned to walk the mile to Mr. Martino’s Trattoria, the misty rain and wind forced us to take cabs to and from dinner. In old-world simplicity, the restaurant's name is scrawled on the green awning of a 19th century building, and an artsy hand-painted sign with a table and two chairs hangs above. Marc and Maria Farnese opened the restaurant a few decades ago and named it after their favorite haunt in Italy. All entrees are prepared fresh and may take awhile to arrive. But if you're ever in Philly, don’t miss an authentic Italian experience at this charming restaurant!
Day 4 – Our final morning in the city started off with a hearty breakfast at Sabrina’s Café which offers outdoor seating in nice weather. Arrive early on weekends to avoid long waiting lines, especially if you're coming for their legendary brunch. True to Philadelphia's “City of Brotherly Love” reputation, the staff was friendly and quick with a smile.
As they say, all good things must end, and so did our adventures in Philly. The ephemeral cherry blossoms were already fluttering to the ground as we headed out of town. We’re already looking forward to a return visit!
For more information on Philadelphia, visit www.visitphilly.com