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!"
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.
You smell what I'm cookin', right?
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.
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.
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.
And full of public art interesting enough to make you wonder if the pot is better in Philly than elsewhere.
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?
I knew as soon as I saw this sign that I was among my people: Cheese steaks and fries for breakfast!
And a lunch called the Train Wreck? It's like they knew I was coming.
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.
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?
Plus you can get ramps without getting into a fistfight, which is almost never the case in New York.
And some more interesting delicacies, like jujubes and angel dust.
If that doesn't interest you, perhaps rainbow-hued veggies, eggs, donuts, or cream cheese might.
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???
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.
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.
Not to mention oil, vinegar, spices, olives, and my new favorite cookbook.
This is the Valley Shepherd Creamery, where I learned that apparently I have been making grilled cheese sandwiches completely wrong all these years.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The orders come in fast and furious, but DiNic's employees take their time to make each sandwich perfect.
And perfect it was: Juicy pork, bitter greens, and squishy bread, plus a fork "just in case."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The day was sunny and warm, so we took a leisurely walk over to Rittenhouse Square Park.
The park is a great place to practice your art, whether that's cello-playing, guitar-strumming, or goat-racing.
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.
After relaxing on a bench and taking in the sunshine, we explored the surrounding neighborhood.
And made a list of all the restaurants we'd need to visit next time.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
As was the surrounding neighborhood. And to think he lured me in with that "starving artist" shtick.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!