Philadelphia is a city I should know well since I went to university there and my parents live just an hour away. As a student I even had a few part time jobs that took me to Center City so in theory, I should be more than familiar with its cobblestone streets and historical buildings. But I didn’t have as much of an explorer’s spirit back then (not to mention my lack of funds) my school days were mostly spent in west Philadelphia and my knowledge of the other side of Schuylkill River is just a vague memories of a few buildings and parks. As for west Philadelphia, it wasn’t exactly the same west Philadelphia Will Smith referred to in the theme song to Prince of Bel-Air; my west Philly was confined to an area covering less than 10 square blocks with its own university police and ivy covered Gothic buildings.
I used to go back to Penn at least once a year to see my old a cappella group perform but now that I think about it, I can’t remember the last time I was in Philadelphia. My brother was scheduled to land in Philadelphia around 10PM and since Paula hadn’t been to Philadelphia in a while herself, I thought we could spend the day in the city and pick up my brother at the airport after dinner.
I usually like to research and plan out what, when, where, and how of things but with the exception of where we were going to eat (the most important matter if you ask me), I thought we’d just wing it for a change. We were blessed with a beautifully sunny day as we left the house and drove forwards our first stop, Manayunk. I distinctly remember Manayunk being full of cute little shops and restaurants, but to my utter amazement the streets were empty and there was nothing of interest to be found. The only restaurant that we wanted to check out (Agiato) was closed for vacation, the shops along Main Street seemed sad and dated. We thought ourselves lucky for having found street parking when we arrived and put in enough money for 2 hours but ended up leaving less than an hour later. We really tried to like the place, walking up and down Main Street looking for anything cute but it wasn’t to be. We thought maybe having lived in New York for so long has changed us and perhaps we were too jaded. That just may be. We talked about that as we got back in the car and drove 10 minutes to University City.
I was completely flabbergasted when we neared Penn’s campus because almost nothing looked familiar to me. There were condos, multiplex cinemas, fancy salons, giant parking structures, restaurants, coffee shops, and even a clean and modern looking grocery store that simply didn’t exist when I lived there. It got me thinking about how I survived without all of those conveniences. Where did I buy groceries? Where did I get my hair cut? I managed, of course, but I wondered what it would be like to be going to school there now. We purposely made a lunch reservation at DISTRITO because we wanted to try a casual Jose Garces restaurant (he has a mini empire of restaurants in Philadelphia with Amada, Tinto, Chifa, etc) and because this restaurant’s location (39th & Chestnut, basically on Penn’s campus). After lunch I wanted to stroll down Locust Walk and also show Paula where our friends Sammy and Janice got engaged. I looped around half the campus looking for a cheap parking lot and our patience yielded a great street parking spot two blocks away from DISTRITO. We were off to a good start.
Paula and I both love Mexican food and with Jose Garces’ reputation preceding him, we expected good things from DISTRITO. We were pleasantly surprised that the restaurant was in a very modern building and the restaurant’s theme color was bright pink. On display behind a long white bar were at least a hundred bottles of tequila and parked by the front window was a green and white convertible Volkswagen Beetle. The wall by the wide staircase was adorned with whimsical Lucha Libre masks that both reminded me of Cascabel Taqueria on the Upper East Side of Manhattan (for the Lucha Libre mascaras) and Rosa Mexicano near Lincoln Center for the wall leading up to the second floor covered with figures of little divers.
We were led to a corner table from which we could observe the entire restaurant but with the new school year still a few weeks away, the place was half empty. As soon as we were seated our friendly waiter (obviously a Penn student, to whom I wanted to ask what year he was going to graduate) brought us a large bowl of chips and a cute little oblong bowl of well-made salsa. DISTRITO’s express lunch menu allowed us to pick one appetizer, one entree, and a drink for $15 (or you could order anything a la carte) so we decided to get different things to try as much of the food as we could. And in addition to the iced tea we got with the lunch prix fixe, we ordered a watermelon margarita to celebrate our day out in Philadelphia. The margarita was quite strong and delicious, but I tasted nothing remotely close to watermelon- it’s not to say that Paula and I didn’t like the drink. We shared it well and knocked it back down to the very last drop.
As soon as the salad and our shrimp ceviche arrived we knew we’d made a mistake. The portions were HUGE! Our salad “Chilango Chop” came in a large white rectangular vessel with four raised corners. It contained mostly romaine with some frisee, tiny cubes of green apples and cheese, dried cranberries, spiced pecans, tossed in a very subtle honey-lime vinaigrette and topped with fried tortilla strips. With every bite I had different textures, a bit of something sweet, tart, and salty. It was a good salad but except for the name (Chilango is a slang for someone born in Mexico City) and the fried tortilla bits, I couldn’t see what made this salad Mexican. As with the salad, we thought the way the camarones ceviche was presented was great; the small green glass cup was slightly tilted and seemed to glow from within. The shrimp used for the ceviche were decent size but I thought the dish tasted and looked like shrimp with tomato sauce. The red ceviche liquid made me think of ketchup, which I understand is commonly used for ceviche in some parts of the world but I think I prefer something a bit more basic and simple.
After our appetizers were cleared and while we were waiting for the main event, an actual event occurred. We noticed that the silverware on the table started to tremble and the water in our glasses were swaying back and forth. Our first thought was whether there was a subway line under the building but I had a sneaking suspicion it was an earthquake. But no one else at the restaurant seemed to be concerned or even notice it, so we talked about it briefly and moved on. Well, now we know that it was an earthquake that originated in Virginia. I had experienced dozens of earthquakes during the year I lived in Tokyo but for Paula it was her first one. It came and went without her making the smallest fuss about it; I suppose it was for the best that nothing alarming happened with this earthquake.
And just like that we went on to have our entrees, for which we chose huarache de hongos and mahi mahi tacos. I would described huarache as Mexican pizza where instead of using a flour based dough masa is used. As the name suggested ours came with lots of mushrooms and it was also LARGE. We liked the combination of forest mushrooms, huitlacoche (Mexican corn truffle/ fungus), mixture of different cheeses, and caramelized onions. It was delicious while it was hot. I had mixed feelings about the mahi mahi tacos because the fish was fried. Having confirmed that they were fried before we placed the order we weren’t surprised but they looked like fish sticks on little round tortillas, topped with chipotle remoulade, avocado, and red cabbage slaw. But with a dash of some fresh lime juice and the crunchy bite from the slaw, the whole thing came to life and we agreed that they were delightful. Having said that, I was glad that I just had one taco to eat and not two (one order came with two tacos). We passed on dessert and waddled out to take a look around my alma mater.
Why is it that things and places from your childhood look smaller when you revisit them as an adult? I wasn’t a child when I went to Penn but as we walked through the main artery of the campus I was struck by how everything seemed smaller and everyone seemed younger. Most of Locust Walk was under repairs and we couldn’t walk straight up but I popped into my favorite library, passed by College Hall, and paused in front of the Wharton building where Sammy and Janice were engaged. Memories…
With our quick tour of Penn finished we drove directly into center city and over to South Street/Penn’s Landing. I had forgotten what South Street and the shops there were like (a bigger version of Saint Mark’s in East Village) and what little there is to do on a non-weekend/non-holiday. We walked and peeked around as much as we wanted, then decided it was time for some adult beverages. We thought of having a drink at Stella, a Stephen Starr (of Buddakan and Morimoto) property near South Street but our first round during happy hour was at Zavino on South 13th. I was prepared to park at a lot and fork over some ridiculous amount of money, but as luck would have it we found another street side parking spot less than two blocks from Zavino. Well, you win some and you lose some. We liked the cozy feeling of this pizzeria and the staff were very friendly, but the two wines they offered at happy hour were not very good. Paula ended up getting a glass of white that was not yet on the menu at the manager’s recommendation and I took a glass of Torrontes. They offered $8 margherita pizzas during happy hour but considering our dinner reservation and to cut our losses short at Zavino, we quickly drank our wine and walked two blocks over to 10 Arts.
10 Arts by Eric Ripert has the fashionable address of being at 10 Avenue of the Arts, right by City Hall and situated inside the Ritz-Carlton hotel. The cavernous and majestic marble covered hall has the 10 Arts restaurant on its left side, with the borders marked by two floating walls with unsightly neon lights. I really didn’t care for the modern design aesthetics in a such grand and classical structure. The lounge area and the bar took up the center of the large room and that’s where we headed straight away. The 10 Arts happy hour was called “5 for 5 at 5” where 5 wines were offered for $5 from 5PM (until 7PM) along with a nice list of appetizer/bar snacks. Again I was tempted to get a nibble but instead settled for a glass of Pinot Noir, which Paula knew she’d have to help me drink since I was driving us to dinner. Of course she got a glass of wine of her own to start, hhmmmm not-so-great Merlot. My Pinot Noir was better and I was a bit disappointed that I could only take a few small sips. Our conversation turned from the weird juxtaposition of pink neon lights and the white marble columns in the room to the quaintness of Philadelphia to our love of food to my quirky family… And soon enough, it was time for us to leave for dinner.
Dinner was the meal I was most looking forward to because I hadn’t had any Italian food since last November in Italy. I know, I can’t believe it myself. To break this long drought we headed over to Osteria, a Marc Vetri restaurant with chef Jeff Michaud, who was named “best chef mid-atlantic” by James Beard Foundation in 2010. We decided to have dinner there since we didn’t plan far enough in advance to dine at Vetri or at Modo Mio (definitely on my list to visit), but I was really excited to try Osteria nonetheless.
The parking fairy continued to watch over us and for our last stop of the day in Philadelphia, I was able to park a block away from Osteria on North Broad. Osteria is in a rather plain and industrial neighborhood, a few miles north of the busy Center City area; the streets surrounding the restaurant were completely deserted and we weren’t sure whether there would be anyone at the restaurant. But all that changed as soon as we opened the door and saw that the dining room was packed with customers and there was hardly a seat available at the bar in the back. We were given a spacious four-top for the two of us and we quickly zeroed in on what we wanted to have. Our friendly waiter told us they had the suckling pig special we’d heard about and at the table next to us, there was a guy feasting on a roasted pig’s head. My curiosity was piqued but I quickly shook it off, and we decided to focus on pasta and pizza. And a little bit of pork.
We knew we were over-ordering but we told ourselves that the leftovers will be taken home or will be for my brother who wouldn’t have eaten dinner when he arrived in a few hours. We successfully talked ourselves into ordering the grilled pork belly with melon and mint, polpo pizza, corn cavatelli with corn bolognese, and chicken liver rigatoni with cipolline onions and sage. Paula told me ahead of time that she will not leave without having dessert so there was something sweet to have at the end of the meal as well. For dinner I had myself a nice glass of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and Paula started with a Prosecco and then moved onto red wine.
The noise level of the room was lively but not too loud, and the dark walls and rustic furniture were dimly lit from overhead light fixtures with bare bulbs. Our water glasses were always full, napkins re-folded if we got up from the table, dishes were cleared and leftovers were packed and stored away with efficiency. There seemed to be great communication amongst the staff and we were definitely impressed with the level of service; it really hit the right balance of professionalism, formality, and warmth.
After trying their bread and olive oil, we eased into our first course which was the grilled pork belly. It was soft and buttery, and everything I imagined it would be- salt from the pork and sweetness from the melon offsetting each other beautifully. Next came our octopus pizza, which we ordered because we wanted to have a taste of their famous pizza but also get the equally famous wood grilled octopus. It did not disappoint. The perfectly tender octopus had a slight char taste and the smoked mozzarella and the flakes of hot red pepper flakes really worked well together. We could have easily finished the entire pie but we stopped midway so that we could continue on to our pastas.
Corn cavatelli was one of the pasta dishes our waiter recommended and we were all smiles with the abundance of fresh corn and the hand made cavatelli. The cavatelli had the right bite, cooked truly al dente and I loved the little pop of sweetness I got with all the corn in the dish. I was deliriously happy with my meal so far but also dangerously full with still the chicken liver rigatoni to go. I think Paula and I gave each other a little pep talk about rallying, rising to the occasion, etc. and when the rigatoni arrived at the table I was ready. I was concerned that it would be too grainy but the problem with the dish for me was the saltiness. There was nothing I could fault when it came to the pasta itself; the home-made rigatoni was amazing. I think I could eat that rigatoni with nothing but a bit of olive oil and salt- it was that good. Too bad the liver was so aggressively seasoned that the whole dish suffered. Brushing off that last disappointment aside, Paula focused on her dessert and got the polenta budino with gianduia mousse and candied hazelnuts. Even with an overly full stomach, I took a few spoonfuls and enjoyed the creamy, sweet, and crunchy concoction.
And as we were finishing off the dessert I received a call from Kevin saying that he’d just landed. We swirled ourselves out of the restaurant to go pick him up and to end our day. Manayunk, an earthquake, walk down memory lane, South Street and Penn’s Landing, two full meals, two rounds of happy hour drinks, and picking up Kevin from the airport, all done in 12 hours in Philadelphia. City of Brotherly Love indeed.
If I make another trip to Center City, I’ll try to visit some of the cute restaurant & bars right on South 13th Street- Lolita, El Rey, Barbuzzo, Bindi, etc. http://www.barbuzzo.com/
A shop Paula and I have been eying but never checked out: Third Street Habit 153 N 3rd Street Philadelphia, PA 19106
DISTRITO: 3945 Chestnut Street Philadelphia, PA 19104 Phone 215.222.1657
Zavino: 112 South 13th Street Philadelphia, PA 19107 Phone 215.732.2400
10 Arts by Eric Ripert: 10 Ave of the Arts Philadelphia, PA 19103 Phone 215.523.8273
Osteria: 640 North Broad Street Philadelphia, PA 19130 Phone 215.763.0920