Northeast home to many hidden gems

From cheesesteaks to Tastykakes, Steph­en Starr to Marc Vetri, the Read­ing Ter­min­al to the Itali­an Mar­ket, Philly food gets a de­cent amount of at­ten­tion. But one area of the city that has been vir­tu­ally writ­ten off de­serves re­cog­ni­tion for its im­press­ive lineup of hid­den gems.

North­east Philly isn’t a place to go to lose weight. It’s not a gour­met des­tin­a­tion boast­ing farm-fresh pea shoots and foie gras. It’s not some­where you need re­ser­va­tions for din­ner.

Those are all of the things North­east Philly is not. Let me tell you what it is. It’s a neigh­bor­hood of eth­ni­cit­ies: Ir­ish, Itali­an, Ger­man, Pol­ish, Jew­ish, Greek. It’s a place where blue-col­lar fam­il­ies buy their first home and of­ten nev­er move out of it. Kids play in the street all sum­mer, and older folks talk about how most of the area was farm­land when they were young. It’s a mi­cro­cosm of work­ing Amer­ica, where the lines between lib­er­al, uni­on-mem­ber Demo­crats and con­ser­vat­ive, church-go­ing Re­pub­lic­ans are blurry.

Per­haps most of all, the Great North­east (as we nat­ives call it) is a place where people take their food ser­i­ously.

It’s not about the hot­test new res­taur­ants or diet fads or crazes over silly new in­gredi­ents like Ramps. The neigh­bor­hood’s food cul­ture is driv­en by styles and tech­niques passed down through gen­er­a­tions. It’s the ori­gin­al ‘slow food,’ a term that has popped up re­cently to fight the on­slaught of ‘fast food.’ The baker­ies, del­is and oth­er eat­er­ies in the North­east take time to make their del­ic­acies the right way - the way their pre­de­cessors taught. 

A ho­agie might take 15 minutes to build, but it’s the best damn sand­wich you’ve ever tasted.

Take one from Dat­tilo’s in Rhawn­hurst. Lay­ers of thinly sliced meat cured in the back of the store, fresh moz­zarella, a spe­cial dress­ing that took 15 years to per­fect, all on house-baked rolls with just the right chewy-yet-soft tex­ture. In D.C., where I live now, we go crazy over sand­wiches like that - stand­ing in line through an en­tire lunch hour, pay­ing any­thing the store asks just to get qual­ity meat, cheese and bread. In North­east Philly, it’s just a corner place that loc­als stop in­to at lunch or when get­ting the fix­ings for Sunday din­ner to­geth­er.

Just a few blocks away is the home of Lip­kin’s, one of a few of the area’s Jew­ish baker­ies. Fam­ous for its Knishes with stuff­ings from potato to spin­ach to rice to mush­rooms, Lip­kin’s of­ten has lines out the door. But that’s not all. Think freshly baked Chal­lah that sells out just be­fore sun­down every Fri­day, del­ic­ate cook­ies so good they might be il­leg­al in post-trans-fat-ban Phil­adelphia, rye bread, dan­ishes, ham­a­ntaschen, bab­ka and the only ac­cept­able birth­day cakes (ac­cord­ing to my moth­er).

I grav­it­ate nat­ur­ally to­ward Itali­an (my hus­band’s her­it­age) and Jew­ish (mine) food, but there is much more hap­pen­ing in North­east Philly than pros­ciutto and kippered sal­mon. Two cheesesteak shops - Joe’s (formerly Chink’s) and Steve’s - that have con­sist­ently been rated among the best in the city call the North­east home. 

A per­son­al fa­vor­ite: the per­fect pret­zels from the Dutch Coun­try Mar­ket, hand twis­ted in front of you, baked, dipped in but­ter, fin­ished with crunchy rock salt, served hot. 

You’ll also find: densely de­li­cious ba­gels from poppy to pum­per­nick­el with thick deli cream cheese at Steve Stein’s Fam­ous Deli; dozens of milk­shakes and over 100 fla­vors of soda at Nifty Fifties; “Best Of Philly” But­ter Cake at Dan­ish Bakers in nearby Rockledge; to­mato pies from Tony’s and San­tucci’s; hand-made, au­then­t­ic Ger­man lunch­eon meats and saus­ages from Rieker’s Prime Meats; all man­ner of wurst, schnitzel and spaet­zle at the Hop An­gel Brauhaus, housed in a his­tor­ic space built in 1683; and even 25 craft brews on tap at the Grey Lodge Pub (earn­ing it a spot on Es­quire magazine’s Best Bars in Amer­ica list).

Not to men­tion old school diners that of­fer matzo ball soup all day, all year and throw­backs like french dip sand­wiches. Not­ably, the May­fair Diner has garnered vis­its from prom­in­ent pub­lic fig­ures since Pres­id­ent Kennedy made a cam­paign stop there in 1960. 

In that same neigh­bor­hood, the ori­gin­al Chick­ie’s & Pete’s was born in an un­as­sum­ing corner bar and has since bal­looned in­to a mini-em­pire that re­cently earned ES­PN’s “best sports bar in North Amer­ica” dis­tinc­tion.

The North­east will prob­ably al­ways be a neigh­bor­hood of eth­ni­cit­ies; al­beit dif­fer­ent ones. Brazili­an, Asi­an, Rus­si­an and Al­bani­an fam­il­ies are mak­ing their culin­ary marks on the area. Those cuisines may seem a de­par­ture from the old guard, but they en­rich the din­ing land­scape and rep­res­ent a new gen­er­a­tion with the same tra­di­tions.

North­east Philly is of­ten over­looked, but to taste it is to un­der­stand its es­sence: fam­ily-ori­ented, old-fash­ioned in an ever-chan­ging world, and rooted in an ap­pre­ci­ation for hand­craf­ted meals. ••

Sarah Mai­el­lano is a freel­ance writer ori­gin­ally from Rhawn­hurst. She cur­rently lives in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

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