A Travellerspoint blog

May 2013

A Weekend in Philly: This Little Piggy Went to Market, Pt. 1

Philadelphia is my kind of town. Just across the river from New Jersey and only 75 minutes from New York City, Philly is the defiant middle child of the mid-Atlantic. Keenly aware that it'll never be as dazzling and fast-paced as its big sister to the north, nor as tanned and tattooed as its younger one down the shore, Philly just shrugs its shoulders and barks in its inimitable accent, "Eh, who needs 'em? We got hoagies as big as beach balls ovah heah!"

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Indeed, Philadelphia is renowned for its doughy delectables, most notably soft pretzels, hoagies, pork rolls, tomato pies, and cheese steaks, also known collectively in some circles as "Tracey's Christmas List." In recent years, however, Philadelphia has expanded its culinary repertoire to include the likes of Jose Garces, an Iron Chef and James Beard Award winner who presides over a mini-empire of eight Philadelphia restaurants, and Marc Vetri, whose namesake eatery was called "probably the best Italian restaurant in America" by no less than Bon Appetit magazine.

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You smell what I'm cookin', right?

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But first things first. Angel and I decided to take the train down, partly because it was faster than driving, and partly because the idea of a taking a train trip together sounded old-fashioned and romantic.

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And it might have been, if we hadn't accidentally ended up in two seats that faced backwards for the duration of the ride, and if somebody hadn't decided that it would be a good idea to bring their three-year-old onto the quiet car. After asking for the 800th time, "Mommy, is that a bridge?" I'm happy to report that the little one finally fell asleep. Either that or she drugged him to keep the other passengers from flinging him off one of those bridges.

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We decided to stay in the heart of Center City for easy access to all the neighborhoods we planned to visit. Angel, who went to school in Philadelphia and hadn't been back since, tried to warn me that the area was pretty rough around the edges, and that some of the other neighborhoods we'd be venturing into were even grittier. But a lot has changed since dinosaurs roamed the earth, and Angel was as pleasantly surprised as I was to find the city safe, clean, and welcoming.

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And full of public art interesting enough to make you wonder if the pot is better in Philly than elsewhere.

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Our first stop was the Reading Terminal Market, also known as The Happiest Place on Earth. Founded in 1892 and featuring more than 80 vendors spread over 1.7 acres of gastonomic paradise, the market is an enormous Willy Wonka-style wonderland, with Italian hoagies and cheese steaks standing in for lickable wallpaper and Everlasting Gobstoppers. Who needs a river of chocolate when there are deli cases overflowing with bacon?

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I knew as soon as I saw this sign that I was among my people: Cheese steaks and fries for breakfast!

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And a lunch called the Train Wreck? It's like they knew I was coming.

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The epicurean delights at Reading Terminal Market aren't just limited to bacon, of course. There's everything from peppermint daisies and pork rolls to peach cobbler and Peking duck.

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And lest you think there aren't any chi-chi gourmet foods here, not only can you find Gadzooks ice cream, but Gadzooks Blanc. It doesn't get much fancier than that, oui?

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Plus you can get ramps without getting into a fistfight, which is almost never the case in New York.

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And some more interesting delicacies, like jujubes and angel dust.

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If that doesn't interest you, perhaps rainbow-hued veggies, eggs, donuts, or cream cheese might.

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Or this, Lemon Delight, which I am still kicking myself for not ordering, because who in their right mind passes up a plateful of lemon meringue pie guts???

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This is a deliciously sticky-looking accumulation of pastry glaze and some crullers? bear claws? blintzes? I have no idea. They could cover tree limbs in this glaze and I'd gnaw my way through them.

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Just when I thought my heart might burst from a clogged artery happiness, I spied case upon case of burgers, salami, pepperoni, and cheese. Sweet Baby Jesus.

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Not to mention oil, vinegar, spices, olives, and my new favorite cookbook.

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This is the Valley Shepherd Creamery, where I learned that apparently I have been making grilled cheese sandwiches completely wrong all these years.

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I had suspected that the sheer volume of food would be overwhelming, and of course it was, so I was glad that I'd decided to pick and choose what we'd eat ahead of time, lest it turn into a Sharknado-type frenzy. We decided to start with the tomato pie at By George.

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Oh, how I love thee, sweet, tangy, crunchy Tomato Pie. Indeed, I was thisclose to ordering an entire pie for myself and skipping our other scheduled stops, but pound cake and pork rolls beckoned. And so it was on to Termini Bros. for their raspberry pound cake.

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Unfortunately the pound cake was more like a dense birthday cake, and there wasn't as much raspberry goo as I'd hoped for. I knew I should have held out for the Cozumel I saw near the market entrance.

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With our appetizers out of the way, we decided to explore the market a bit to take in the sights, sounds, and smells of what had quickly surpassed "any place that serves cheeseburgers" as my new favorite spot on the planet.

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Soon it was time for the main course: The famous pork roll at DiNic's. Originally opened in 1918 as a South Philly butcher shop run by Gaetano Nicolosi, today DiNic's is run by one of Gaetano's sons, Tommy, and his cousin Franky DiClaudio, resulting in the blended name.

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The orders come in fast and furious, but DiNic's employees take their time to make each sandwich perfect.

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And perfect it was: Juicy pork, bitter greens, and squishy bread, plus a fork "just in case."

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Because we hadn't eaten enough carbs yet, our next stop was a soft, buttery, salty pretzel at Miller's Twist. With cheese, for some protein.

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Finally, having spent nearly three hours in the market, we started to make our way toward the exit. And I almost made it out . . . until I saw the raspberry ice cream.

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It was truly heartbreaking to not be able to eat every. single. thing. in the market during our visit, and even more heartbreaking to have run out of time to return on a subsequent day. Obviously I have a plan for next time, though, and without giving away all the details, let's just say that it involves some rented warehouse space with a walk-in freezer and a refrigerated 18-wheeler.

You might think that we were stuffed to the gills after all this, and you would be right. But the same law of physics which states that no matter how full you are, the smell of movie-theater popcorn will still make your mouth water, also applies to the holy grail of fast-food fried chicken: Chick-fil-A.

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Now, I know that refusing to patronize a Chick-fil-A has become something of a political statement lately. And although Angel and I are both staunchly opposed to Chick-fil-A's particular viewpoint and should have voted with our feet, we instead voted with our taste buds and settled in with an 8-pack of crispy, juicy chicken nuggets and this new Tracey-sized ketchup packet.

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Hypocritical? Yes. But when the chicken is this good, the folks at Chick-fil-A could be clubbing baby seals in their spare time, and I'd still be forced to look away. I mean, it's not like I wear sneakers made with child labor or anythi . . . oh, wait. Maybe I am going to hell.

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The day was sunny and warm, so we took a leisurely walk over to Rittenhouse Square Park.

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The park is a great place to practice your art, whether that's cello-playing, guitar-strumming, or goat-racing.

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This is my new building. Or, rather, it will be, just as soon as the world's factory workers stop hogging all the winning lottery tickets.

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After relaxing on a bench and taking in the sunshine, we explored the surrounding neighborhood.

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And made a list of all the restaurants we'd need to visit next time.

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If the Reading Terminal Market and Chick-fil-A and the gorgeous homes near Rittenhouse Square weren't reason enough for me to consider a move to Philly, our restaurant experiences certainly were. That's because here in New York City, you get so used to dinner and drinks being a gigantic hassle that you just assume that every other city is like that, too. Everything from enjoying a margarita after work on a warm, sunny Friday afternoon (along with 5,000 of a your closest friends) to snagging a table outside for an al fresco dinner (after a wait of upwards of an hour or two) to the old "wait at the bar even though you have a reservation" trick (during which you are jostled and bumped for the next 45 minutes while dropping 50 bucks on drinks waiting for the table that you already reserved) is so commonplace here that when all of these irritations failed to materialize in Philly, we thought we'd died and gone to heaven. Or at least to one of the 8,359,246 places less annoying than New York.

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Case in point: Around 5:30pm that afternoon, we decided to walk over to Tinto, chef Jose Garces' Basque-style wine bar that earns consistently rave reviews. As we strolled in the warm sunshine, it suddenly hit me: It's Friday afternoon. It's gorgeous out. Tinto is really popular. Translation: We're not getting anywhere near this place.

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But this is Philadelphia, not the Big Hassle, er, Apple. Right in to Tinto we sailed, with seats to spare at the bar and huge front windows flung open to let in the warm breeze. This is why they call Philadelphia the City of Brotherly Love, I thought dreamily, as absolutely no one elbowed me in the ribs or shoved their way past me.

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Already high on amor fraternal, I nevertheless settled on one of the stronger drinks on the menu, the Mairritze, made with cachaça, muddled mint, lime, and blood orange, while Angel went with the non-traditional house red sangria with Applejack and a hint of spicy-sweet guindilla peppers.

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Afterwards we decided to check out the buildings Angel had lived in when he was a student. Based on his descriptions over the years, I was kicking myself for not bringing my bulletproof vest, but both buildings were perfectly lovely.

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As was the surrounding neighborhood. And to think he lured me in with that "starving artist" shtick.

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By this time it had been about an hour since my last cocktail, so we beat feet back to the hotel to freshen up for dinner.

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That night we had reservations at Amis, one of the restaurants owned by Marc Vetri, whose first Philadelphia restaurant, Vetri, was hailed as one of America's 50 best restaurants by Gourmet magazine.

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But we chose one of his newer spots, Amis, instead of Vetri for two reasons: Bruschetta with whipped fava beans, spring peas, and pecorino; and Sal's old-school meatballs. Which were the first two things we ordered, right after two glasses of Prosecco and some fried cauliflower with still more pecorino and a spicy, creamy tomato sauce.

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For my entree, I decided to try the cacio e pepe, a simple peasant dish made by combining hot pasta with butter, Parmigiano-Reggiano, cracked black pepper, and some starchy pasta water to thicken it. How anyone ever manages to make this dish without it becoming a watery mess of floating cheese is beyond me, but I guess that's why my oven is used to store books.

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For his part, Angel went with the Beast of the Night, duck, which for the entree choice was made into a thick ragu over whole wheat rigatoni.

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After we'd eaten everything put in front of us save for a few uncracked peppercorns at the bottom of my dish, our waiter correctly surmised that we wouldn't be interested in dessert, and suggested that we split a final glass of wine instead. More alcohol, you say? It was the perfect end to a perfect night.

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We still have two more days left, and they're filled with food, wine, cocktails . . . and the occasional corn dog. Click here to read Part 2!

Posted by TraceyG 04:42 Archived in USA Comments (8)

A Weekend in Philly: This Little Piggy Went to Market, Pt. 2

The next day we awoke bright and early, ready for the piece de Whizistance of our visit: a Cheese Steak Throwdown. We decided to walk from Center City down to South Street to build up an appetite and see the sights along the way. We started at the small pocket park near Reading Terminal Market, then made our way down to Washington Square Park in the historic area.

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This is the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier memorial, which honors the thousands of soldiers who died during the American Revolution, many of whom were buried in mass graves in this very park. The unattributed quote along the top reads, "Freedom is a light for which many men have died in darkness." Thank you, anonymous quote writer, for making me sob in public.

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Angel had warned me that the South Street area was somewhat gritty, and it was . . . but in the same way that a 1973 Lincoln Continental is both cool and pimpy at the same time.

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Old Italian man + horse's heads = only the greatest movie ever made.

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Our first stop for the Throwdown was Jim's Steaks, which opened in 1939 at its original location in West Philadelphia, where it still operates. Jim's gets its bread from Amoroso's, which has been around since 1904 and survived the Great Depression by making home deliveries twice a day. You'd think that rolls would have been one of the first luxuries to go during the Depression, but I can't fault anyone who would rather give up cable TV than good bread.

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Angel got in line to order, while I went upstairs to stake out some seats.

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After waiting about 15 minutes or so, one of Jim's employees told me that I wasn't allowed to reserve a table -- I'd have to wait until I actually had my food to sit down. As I stalled for time by calling Angel to see if he'd made it to the front of the line yet, the couple seated at the table next to mine offered to let me sit with them. "Just pretend you're friends with us!" they urged, and I gratefully took them up on the offer. What I didn't realize is that they'd turn out to be exactly the kind of people I'd love to be friends with: Paul, who's originally from New Zealand, spent the last 30 years as the executive director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a huge, Tony award-winning company with more than 500 members. Newly retired, he is often called upon to teach and give talks regarding theater, and his wife, Cathy, comes along for the ride, exploring the area and making pit stops for cheese steaks along the way. This is who I want to be when I grow up.

Finally, Angel appeared with our cheese steaks, and we dug right in. We'd ordered the classic cheese steak "wit Whiz" but decided to forego the sauteed onions on this first go-round, which was fortuitous since nobody, including Cathy and Paul, wants to be friends with an onion-breathed blogger.

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Our verdict? Jim's cheese steak was salty (a plus in my book), pillowy, with lots of Cheez Whiz and fantastic bread. The meat, however, was content to let the bread and Whiz do all the heavy lifting, seeing as how it didn't appear to have been seasoned in any way. Overall a pretty good cheese steak, and I finished every bite, but the steak itself was something of a letdown. (This picture lies, I tell you.)

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After parting ways with our new friends (but not before making plans to meet up in Oregon one of these days), we decided to try a newcomer on the steak scene, Steaks on South, which won a local news contest for Best Cheese Steak in Philadelphia. SOS, as it's called, took longer to grill our order than Jim's, and was pricier, both of which might explain why there was no line when we arrived.

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The steak, however, should have had folks lining up around the block and happily waiting as long as it takes. Peppery and garlicky and juicy, I could have eaten it all by itself. And I almost had to, since SOS is pretty stingy with the Whiz. Still, the steak here was so good that it definitely made up for the so-so bread and Whiz-hoarding.

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By now we were two cheese steaks in, so it was time to walk around for a bit to gear up for Round 3. You can cue the "Rocky" music here.

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Have I mentioned that Philly is my kind of town?

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Round 3 was at Ishkabibble's, a place I chose more for its fun-to-say name than for anything I'd heard about its cheese steaks, which I guess tells you everything you need to know.

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As Vanity looked on, we ordered two non-traditional steaks, with provolone and sauteed onions for Angel and mozzarella and pizza sauce for me.

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But who could tell the difference? Mine and Angel's tasted nearly identical -- the meat wasn't seasoned, the sauce wasn't seasoned, and the bread was too doughy. In fact, I didn't even finish mine, and before you chalk that up to having eaten two other cheese steaks only an hour earlier, you will recall that I ate a slice of tomato pie, a hunk of pound cake, a pork sandwich, a soft pretzel with cheese, and raspberry ice cream for lunch the day before . . . and then went out for some fried chicken afterwards. Sure, I have a tapeworm, but that doesn't mean I'll eat just anything. Well, I mean, I will, but I might not finish it. I mean . . . hey, look! Cute kids!

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So, which one was the winner of our Cheese Steak Throwdown, Spring 2013 Edition? That would be the Frankensteak, which, if it existed, would consist of the airy Amoroso rolls from Jim's, the generous slather of Whiz from Jim's, the perfectly seasoned meat from Steaks on South, and the hole-in-the-wall atmosphere of Ishkabibble's. (If you know of someone already serving these Frankensteaks, please let me know in the comments, since a Fall 2013 Rematch is already in the works. And remember, no stinginess wit the Whiz!)

That afternoon we decided to take in the Philadelphia International Festival of the Arts, which stretched about ten blocks down Broad Street and featured the theme, "If You Had a Time Machine..." If I had a time machine, I'd go back and skip that pizza steak to make room for meatballs and fried cheese curds.

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Oh well. I did find some room for a foot-long corn dog.

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Luckily after that I was able to lie down for a bit, in one of these cute little insta-parks that had been set down in the middle of the street.

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Unfortunately we didn't actually see any art at the art fair, but we did see dinosaurs, the DeLorean from "Back to the Future," these cool stilt/horse things that require way more coordination than I was born with, and much more.

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And some really scary stuff, too, like Ferris wheels and The Bravest Mother in the World.

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After the street fair it was time for a glass of wine, so we headed back over to the Rittenhouse Square neighborhood to check out two cute French places I'd spied the day before, Rouge and Parc. Both were both pretty crowded, however, and since we'd thusfar managed to enjoy almost two full days without wanting to Taser anyone -- score another one for Philly! -- we headed over to Cicheterria 19, a quiet Venetian wine bar and restaurant that just happened to have a table for two right in the second-floor window overlooking the street and the Parisian-style bakery across the way.

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At C19 I discovered my new favorite drink, the Rossini, which is fresh strawberries, sugar, Prosecco, and impossible to put down.

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Angel started with a glass of Cabernet, then moved on to the gorgeous Catching Fire cocktail, a spicy-sweet mix of jalapeno-infused tequila, passion fruit, fresh lime, and orange liqueur, finished with a vibrant purple hibiscus salt rim. Though it wasn't my cup of tea, Angel thought it was one of the most interesting -- and delicious -- cocktails he'd had in a while.

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After two cocktails apiece, it was time to order some munchies, so we went with this tasty platter of cannellini bean hummus with smoked paprika, rosemary flatbread, and veggies, along with some bread grilled with olive oil.

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For those keeping track, that's 3 cheese steaks, a corn dog, two Rossinis, a bread bowl, and some hummus. I had to save room for dinner, you know.

On our way over to C19, we'd passed these people hanging out on the sidewalk on a random Sunday afternoon chatting and sipping Champagne.

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You can do that in New York, too, of course. While playing a fun guessing game called, "Which Citation Will the Cops Issue First?"

That night's reservation was at Amada, where we planned to enjoy a light meal of tapas and wine.

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We started off with this gratis little plate of garlic crisps and a dip made from tuna, oil, and capers, which was salty and crunchy and therefore addictive.

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Next up, baked goat cheese in romesco (delicious, though how could it not be?), patatas bravas (cute but rather tasteless), and wild mushroom rice with English peas and manchego (two words: English peas).

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That was followed by baby artichokes with parmesan, which were salty and sharp and delicious, and lamb meatballs with shaved manchego, which were so tender and juicy and flavorful that we nearly came to blows over who'd get the last one. (I won, of course.)

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It was a warm night and the French doors had been flung open, and these seats in the gravel pit completed the indoor-outdoor vibe.

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After dinner we weren't quite ready to call it a night, and the soaring windows of Del Frisco's, housed in the 1920s-era First Pennsylvania Bank building on Chestnut Street, had caught my eye earlier in the day, so we popped in for a nightcap.

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Once seated at the expansive bar, Angel decided on a delicious-sounding cocktail made with blackberries and bourbon. I'd actually wanted that one, too, but Tracey + bourbon = laughing hyena, so I stuck to the basics with a pomegranate martini.

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We had barely begun sipping our drinks when we looked around and realized that the after-dinner crowd at Del Frisco's leaned toward what I like to call halfway-hookers: Girls that aren't exactly hookers, but aren't exactly . . . not. Feeling downright Amish in my skinny jeans, heels, silk halter, and real boobs, we quickly downed our cocktails and headed back to our room. Which we'd rented by the night, not the hour. Ahem.

Sunday morning means Sunday brunch, and where better to brunch . . . than at a martini bar?

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And so we took a leisurely walk down to the Continental Restaurant & Martini Bar, a retro-hip spot in Old City where we could enjoy my kind of breakfast: mac & cheese and martinis.

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As soon as we sat down, I spied a waitress bearing a tray of candy-colored strawberry-watermelon sorbets in mini Champagne glasses. "Ooooh! So pretty! Cute glasses! Must have!" I thought to myself. I immediately began scanning the menu so I could order some, but before I could, the waitress came by . . . and dropped them off at my table! For ME! For free! This E.S.P. thing is really working out.

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Post-sorbet, I decided to go with the "Saturday Morning Cartoon" starring banana-infused gold rum and Lucky Charms horchata, a milky libation made from rice (in Mexico) or tigernuts (in Spain) and served over ice as a refresher in those hot climates. Obviously anything made with Lucky Charms (and rum) is magically delicious, and this was no exception.

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For his part, Angel went with the Market Street Mocha, which was made with double espresso vodka, chocolate milk, and this cute little chocolate candy "swizzle stick" that we fought over like it was the wishbone from a Thanksgiving turkey.

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The food menu was equally inventive, but I had already made plans to snarf up an entire tomato pie before I left town that evening, so we decided to order a few small plates to tide us over. After some intense horse-trading, we went with the cheese steak eggrolls with Sriracha ketchup, the lobster mac n’ cheese with orzo, gruyère, and fontina cheese, and the Korean BBQ pork tacos made with Berkshire Farms pork and pickled cucumbers. Giddy up!

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Of course one should repent after spending a boozy Sunday morning at a martini bar instead of church, so off we went to Sunday School.

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Sunday School at Tria Cafe consists of a featured, not-so-common wine, beer, and cheese every Sunday at a discounted price. Naturally we figured it would be mobbed, but were pleasantly surprised when an outdoor table opened up within minutes of our arrival . . . and we were the only ones waiting. I know this doesn't sound like your typical miracle, but the Lord works in mysterious ways.

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On this particular Sunday, Angel and I lucked out with the featured wine being a Rosé Txakolina from the Basque region of Spain, which was enticingly described as "springtime in a glass." And it was: The Txakolina (pronounced "choc-o-lina") was dry, fresh, fruity, and crisp, and I immediately noticed what turned out to be its trademark fizzy taste (though it contains no bubbles).

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It paired beautifully with that Sunday's cheese, a Podda Classico from Sardinia, which is similar to Parmigiano-Reggiano but differs from the classic parm in that it's made from a blend of cow and sheep milk (parm is all cow), giving it a rich, creamy, almost toffee-like flavor.

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After the Rosé Txakolina disappeared with alarming speed, I moved on to the white Txakolina for comparison's sake. The white was very similar to its pink cousin, with the same fizz and mineral, almost salty flavor, but minus the strawberry and watermelon notes of the rosé. Either way, I've found my new "sip by the pool" wines for this summer.

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After a few hours of wine-tasting, cheese-nibbling, and outfit-critiquing of the various passers-by, it was time for some tomato pie. We decided to take the scenic route. We started in this beautiful little park in Society Hill . . .

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Then looped back to the area near the Continental Martini Bar.

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The more we wandered around, the more tiny alleyways and historic homes I fell in love with.

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Nearby Independence Park is the pillar of the neighborhood.

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Finally, it was time for Tomato Pie. I was hoping for some thick Sicilian-style T.P. like By George's, but a quick scan of online reviews all pointed to Gianfranco's, and as luck would have it, it was just a short walk away.

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Sure, this place is pretty fancy, but was the tomato pie any good? Judge for yourself:

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Of course, we finished it. I'd sooner leave a man behind than a slice of pizza.

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Before long it was time to retrieve our luggage and head over to the train station for the short ride home. Once on the train, we settled into our (forward-facing) seats and pulled out our reading material, but as the train began to chug along, I found that I just couldn't focus on my book. Instead, I spent half the train ride reflecting on what a fantastic weekend full of great food, inventive drinks, and perfect weather it had been.

And the other half researching that refrigerated truck rental for next time.

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Next up, we're exploring the Abacos by boat. So what if neither of us knows how to operate one? Subscribe here and you'll be the first to know whether the adage, "If you don't know the knot, tie a lot," holds any, um, water.

Posted by TraceyG 04:40 Archived in USA Tagged philadelphia philly tria continental_martini_bar jim's_steaks steaks_on_south amada del_frisco's Comments (8)

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