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Time Warp In Philly

June 2, 2008 - Eric Paddock
The guy on the corner had four limes among the fingers of one hand, the way a magician would display multiplying foam balls. “LIMES! LIMES HEE (that’s Philly for “here”). WE GOT ‘EM. DOLLAH.” About 30 feet farther along the street and behind some overflowing bins of produce another guy was singing about tomatoes. The Italian Market on Philadelphia’s sound side is a little bit of bedlam, a place where shopping for the ingredients of dinner can be as exciting and confusing as trading commodities in the pits at the Chicago Board of Trade.

But, fear not. It’s been going like this for more than a hundred years, and stories of shoppers being trampled in the rush for great deals on sweet red peppers are exaggerated.

It’s the way people in big cities used to shop for food. It’s the way people in big cities still shop for food in a lot of other places in the world. Open air markets are a feast for the senses as much as they are a potential feast later in your day.

For about three blocks, those who venture through the gauntlet of fish mongers, butchers, produce arabs, spice vendors and coffee roasters, will emerge from the other end with a deep appreciation for the simple truth of food — you can be consumed by it as much as you consume it.

Go in the summer and be assaulted by the colors and the cacophony of the place. Go in the fall for a whole new set of experiences that include late season produce and stocking of larders. Go in the winter and warm yourself by one of the 55-gallon drums that are burning wood from crates of artichokes. Go in the spring, just before Easter, and watch as whole lambs are hung from hooks in the butcher shops.

Although, technically the market extends almost nine blocks on 9th Street on either side of Washington Ave., the heart of it is about four blocks on the north side of Washington.

While the outdoor stuff is well worth the trip -- well, worth it if you happen to be in the Philly area anyway -- venturing in some of the shops is the icing on the cake. These are tiny places that are so crammed with food, people and aromas that those new to the experience sometimes just stand with gaping mouths for the first few minutes.

There are a couple stops I recommend especially.

The first is DiBruno Brothers. If you go on Saturday plan to use your elbows to get in the place. The collection of great cheeses and succulent cured meats allows only enough room for about 30 very friendly and forgiving customers at a time. Wonderful soppressata, parma prosciutto, and panceta, the kind of meats you use for seasoning more than a course. The guys behind the counter are as entertaining as they are informative. They’ll virtually insist that you try any cheese you’re thinking about buying.

Talluto’s. This is a tiny Italian grocery on the corner -- I forget which one -- that will cut you fresh pasta, ladle-up some cured olives, and offer up some of the greatest sharp provolone I have ever tasted. They also have an unbelievable selection of olive oils, balsamic viniagers.

Anastasio’s produce on the corner of Washington and 9th overflows into the street. If there is a vegetable they don’t have, it’s because you don’t want it.

Cannuli’s Meats: These guys make some unbelievable sausages.

I could go on for days.

Actually, the Italian Market is just one of the great foody venues in Philly. In a future post I’ll talk about the Reading Terminal Market downtown, another feast for the senses, though not as frenetic as South Philly. Then, there’s China Town...another day.

Next: The best burger in Warren County.


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