A new corridor in old South Philadelphia
Era Atomica showcases one-of-a-kind, mid-century pieces, including furniture, lamps, art and kitchenware. (Jonathan Schimpf)
For 85 years, Andrew Erace’s grandmother has lived in the same South Philadelphia brick rowhouse, and for most of that time the main drag of her neighbourhood, East Passyunk Avenue, has been the beating heart and soul of Philadelphia’s Italian-American community.
But when Andrew and his brother, food critic Adam Erace, decided to open a tiny locavore emporium on East Passyunk in 2009, Green Aisle Grocery was not the only decidedly different new business to pop-up on the thoroughfare.
“This [street] used to be an extension of the Italian Market,” Andrew said, citing Philadelphia’s famous open-air market that begins where Passyunk crosses Ninth Street. “Our block was where people parked their cars to go up to Pat’s or Geno’s and get a cheesesteak. But about the last six or seven years there’s been a change. You saw younger people, families moving in. A lot more strollers.”
Colleen DeCesare and her partner, Jennifer Kaufman, are one of the new families who call this increasingly diverse pocket of South Philly home. Attracted by affordable rowhomes, proximity to Center City and safe, walkable streets, the area has become a thriving destination for single professionals, couples, families and Philadelphia’s emerging young gay community. The new East Passyunk Avenue, which diagonally bisects the otherwise strict street grid of South Philly, is dotted with boutiques, shops, cafes, restaurants and bars catering to newcomers in an old neighbourhood.
“Old South Philly has been very accepting of ‘New South Philly’,” DeCesare said. “There’s a really nice feel here. You have hipsters, gay people [and] people from different walks of life that have been embraced by the neighbourhood.”
In 2007, DeCesare and Kaufman opened Black N Brew, a coffee shop and café that is located in a unique corner space with a remarkable mosaic exterior. It has become a ubiquitous neighbourhood meeting place, and DeCesare and Kaufman have been very involved in outreach events, even playing host to a weekly social for LGBT seniors, the William Way Community Center’s MorningsOut excursion.
Queers on the Avenue (QOTA) is the biggest neighbourhood event designed to engage the growing local gay community. Marketing itself as the “Big Gay South Philly Happy Hour”, QOTA takes place in a different bar each month, drawing a sizeable crowd from the neighbourhood as well as from other corners of the city, including many from Philadelphia’s traditional “Gayborhood”, which is in the Washington Square West neighbourhood.
But the neighbourhood’s Italian past has not been ignored, and nowhere is that heritage more proudly displayed than at Le Virtù, the Cretarola family’s four-year-old shrine to Abruzzese cuisine. Spend five minutes with co-manager Fred Cretarola, who in true South Philly fashion lives in the apartment above his restaurant, and you will be completely sold on the virtues of a region best known for its wine, the excellent Montepulciano d’Abruzzo. But the star at Le Virtù is the food, and this is no red-gravy, spaghetti and meatballs outfit. This restaurant serves the bold, unpretentious Abruzzese cuisine of shepherds, farmers and fishermen – house-made sausages, smoked potato gnocchi with lamb shoulder, and braised rabbit sourced from nearby Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, served atop wide ribbon pasta – simple, elegant and traditional.
And, of course, no trip to the avenue would be complete without an after-dinner drink at the funky Cantina Los Caballitos. Inside, small and colourful lights dangle above margarita-sipping bar patrons. On warmer evenings, grab a seat at one of the tables outside the Cantina and dive into the rare and exotic selection of Mezcals, a smokier sibling to tequila with unrivalled complexity, and take in the parade of people out for an evening stroll on East Passyunk.
Where to shop
Metro Men’s Clothing (1615 East Passyunk Avenue; 267-324-5171), a classic men’s store, features a mix of American and European designer labels available nowhere else in Philadelphia, including Scotch & Soda, Ben Sherman and Fred Perry. It is another gay-owned small business, founded by Tom Longo after he decided to leave a successful Center City career behind. It is also the only place to find coveted swimwear and underwear brands like Parke & Ronen or Andrew Christian.