If you’re only in Philadelphia once, it can’t hurt to walk through the Italian Market and then have a cheesesteak. On your way, check out some of the murals, like the one shown here, and the glass-and-tile mosaic patches on the sides of houses, as seen in the photo to the left. These last are like hints of Gaudi’s Barcelona splashed about this old Philadelphia neighborhood.
If you’re lucky, you will have more time and appetite to spare for the Italian Market. Once you’ve done the cheesesteak, try what is sometimes billed as the “Vietnamese hoagie.” There are several Vietnamese shops in the Italian Market that sell these sandwiches of pork or chicken and pickled vegetables, known as banh mi.
“I’ll have mine `wit’ cilantro,” my husband David joked after we placed our order for banh mi on an April Sunday.
While waiting by the counter, we saw an employee of restaurant take a tray of fresh baguettes from the oven. If your people had to be ruled over by some European nation in the 19th and 20th centuries, and much of the world was, you could do worse than get the French as overlords. They would at least add to the cuisine while doing the nasty things associated with holding a colony. Moroccan cafes to this day serve buttery, fluffy croissants, some wrapped about bits of bittersweet chocolate. In Southeast Asia, people can still turn out lovely baguettes despite decades of grinding poverty, brutal internal wars and dictatorial regimes. Google “baguette Angkor Wat” and you’ll see pages and pages of accounts of people eating good French bread while having coffee near Cambodia’s most important temple.
A banh mi starts with the French baguette, and then layers on the flavors of Vietnam. Pork or chicken, often grilled with good smoky flavor, or ham or paté. Slices of pickled carrots, the mild white radish known as daikon and cucumbers. Bits of jalapeno and cilantro. Getting banh mi right seems something like conducting an orchestra. Everything involved has to perform well, and be in harmony to boot. There are shops in D.C. that sells banh mi with only so-so bread, making the crisp pickled vegetables seem so forlorn.
We haven’t had any such disappointments yet with banh mi in the Italian Market. (If you visit and try banh mi, tell me where you went and how it was.Here are some recommendations from a Philadelphia City Paper article, which includes our favorite, O on Ninth Street. )
David and I have developed a strategy for Sunday visits to the Italian Market when we spend weekends in Philadelphia. Stroll past all the Italian bakeries and only take in the cookies and cakes and pastries with your eyes.
Start with good coffee at one of the little Italian cafes in the market, and skimp on breakfast or skip it entirely. Split a banh mi around lunch. That leaves us ready for when, and not if, we come across another delicious food.
On our last trip, we had great luck and stumbled across a parade to celebrate the Battle of Puebla, an 1862 Mexican victory over the French. According to this Philadelphia Weekly article, much of the Mexican community in the city hails from the state of Puebla.
What looked like thousands of marchers dressed in elaborate costumes filled the streets, and then danced down the narrow streets of this old section of the city. It was one of the best parades I’ve ever seen, with bands brought to Philadelphia from Mexico. The festivities ended in a park,where food stands had been set up. We had tacos al pastor, the Mexican take on shwarma, but with pineapple juice slowly dripping down as the pork cooks. On other trips, I’ve had Mexican hot chocolate in the Italian Market, full of spices, at a restaurant in the Italian Market.
Of course, there are the Italian stores, where you might have to have a sample of this, a little of that. You could walk blindfolded into some of the cheese shops …and know immediately that they were cheese shops. They smell like a cheese shop should. And, there are all kinds of olives on sale, good cured meats, fresh pasta. Blocks lined with stands selling gorgeous produce.
It would be easy to pull together quick dinner parties if one lived near the Italian Market, especially if your guests were curious and carnivorous.
Check out some of the food on offer in the pictures below. Plenty of seafood options too.