I’m in the throes of a love affair with Philadelphia. It’s not like I’m going to up and leave my home in NY, but sometimes I do think about it. For one thing, Philly is a great food city. These people are passionate about food; and I do not mean Philly cheese steaks.
Seems like every time I go to the Italian Market, there is another little adventure. I went last Saturday, that would be Holy Saturday, the Saturday before Easter, and it was mobbed, of course. There were lines out the door for certain butcher stores, DiBruno Bros. cheese store looked like it was about to burst with waiting customers, the spice market was completely sold out of polenta, and there was a little kids birthday party jamming up the traffic at Esposito’s butcher store. It was too chaotic to ask, but a group of seven year olds touring a butcher shop as a theme birthday party? Not something that you see every day.
I was walking by D’Angelo Brothers, and I got sucked right in….they had cinghiale (wild boar). My whole family loves cinghiale, and even though I knew it was probably from Texas, I still wanted some for dinner. So, I stood in line and watched as a young family: husband, wife, 2 young boys, all eagerly watched a rabbit being skinned and cut up. The whole family was so excited. This year, they were going to eat their bunny for Easter dinner! Is there something in the water in Philly that makes young boys eager to go to butcher stores?
The next guy in line was looking for calves tongue, but there was none to be had. It was my turn, and I got my cinghiale, and while the butcher was cutting up some veal shank for me, we started chatting about this ground meat loaf that he had wrapped in caul fat. I asked him what it was, and he said it was an ancient Roman recipe adapted from Marcus Apicius, that he had taken the original recipe, which called for parrots tongue and someone else’s tongue and had substituted ground chicken. I’m thinking maybe it might not have the same flavor or texture; but it would probably make the USDA guys happy. The butcher, Sonny D’Angelo, was great, we had a wide ranging conversation about ancient Roman eating habits, his two cook books, and we even got the nattily dressed man behind me, involved in the conversation, I told them both to read Artusi, and then it took another few minutes to say our goodbyes. It felt….Italian…to me. It’s a rare time, when you go to the butcher in Italy, that you don’t also get advice on how to cook the meat, a minor debate from another customer with another way to prepare the meat, and a long complaint about the weather. Complaining about the weather is an art form in Italy; usually accompanied by a lot of full-bodied gesturing; even if the weather is gorgeous it requires some disparaging comment. “Today is bello, but remember last week’s rain??” I came home from the Italian market, with my bags stuffed, and a smile on my face. Going grocery shopping is much more pleasant when you can talk to someone who is proud of their product.
Our normal morning routine in Philly almost always includes a trip to “Cyber Café” on Girard St. After going there for about a year and a half, we just found out that it’s real name is “Canvas Café”, but I like Cyber Café better. It’s a dog friendly place, where the art on the walls is by local artists, the baker has mad skills and one of the proprietors always remembers how we like our cappuccinos. Every morning there is a selection of 5 or 7 different kinds of home made cakes, muffins and cookies. We go because the coffee is good, the vibe is easy, they have a selection of daily newspapers laying on the tables to read and we can pet various dogs from the ‘hood.
There is a sense of entrepreneurship in Philly that is being eradicated in NY. New York is too expensive to take chances, too chic, too slick to show any rough edges. And it is that ‘roughness’, that gives a place some character, some edge.
As we walked home from Cyber, we admired all the Easter decorations on people’s houses, the sun was shining, and it was an OK way to start the week. Even the pussycat on the fence seemed to be smiling.