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.