East Passyunk Avenue, the beating heart of Philadelphia’s Italian-American community, is dotted with boutiques and restaurants catering to newcomers in an old neighbourhood.

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.

Era Atomica showcases one-of-a-kind, mid-century pieces, including furniture, lamps, art and kitchenware. Stacey Barthaletti, who found inspiration from purchasing a 1962 split-level ranch home just north of the city, fills her store with fun, colourful finds embracing the kitschier side of the 1950s and ‘60s.

South Philly Comics (1621 East Passyunk Avenue; 267-318-7855) is the spot for indie graphic novels and mainstream titles alike, and it is also one of the only neighbourhood comic stores in Philadelphia that offers a subscriber’s discount to regular customers.

Fabric Horse specializes in unique, utilitarian urban essentials rooted in bicycle culture. Navigating Philadelphia’s neighbourhoods by bike is an incredibly popular and efficient endeavour, and Carrie Collins’ U-Lock Holster is the perfect way to store your bike lock on the move. Her bags, utility belts, accessories and clothing are all handmade using sustainable, recycled materials.

Where to eat
Green Aisle Grocery offers hormone-free, locally produced meat, eggs and dairy and fresh produce from small, local farmers throughout the Delaware Valley. There is also a mix of premium packaged goods from elite coffee roasters like Stumptown, ReAnimator and Blue Bottle, artisan chocolates from Brooklyn’s Mast Brothers, and it is the only place where you can take home the amazing hummus produced at Zahav, a modern Israeli restaurant in Philadelphia’s Society Hill neighbourhood, run by award-winning chef Michael Solomonov.

Black N Brew serves local La Colombe coffee, refreshing smoothies, hearty breakfast and lunch plates and features plenty of vegetarian and vegan options.

Fond is a small BYOB (bring your own beer or wine) from two alums of Philadelphia’s legendary haute cuisine showpiece Le Bec-Fin, who have adapted their classic techniques to a bistro setting. Berkshire Pork Belly is the star here, and pastry chef Jesse Prawlucki’s signature desserts have been so popular she recently opened Belle Cakery.

Le Virtù delivers its heralded mix of regional classics in a warm dining room filled with long, rustic wood tables suitable for a big, Italian family dinner. Outside, a sunny patio beneath a large mural is the perfect spot for dining al fresco in the warmer months. No meal here is complete without Centerbe, a rare Abruzzo liqueur offered as a “digestive”.

Where to drink
Stogie Joe’s Passyunk Tavern (1801 East Passyunk Avenue; 215-463-303), located in a former auto-repair garage, is a classic neighbourhood bar right down to the old-school $5 shot-and-a-beer special and live music every Sunday and Monday night. All are truly welcome here as Joe’s has played host to a number of QOTA happy hours and is one of the sponsor bars for the City of Brotherly Love Softball League, Philadelphia’s popular gay and lesbian softball league.

The Pub On Passyunk East, better known as “The P O P E ”, is a church for the worship of craft beer. Fourteen rotating drafts offer American standouts, including excellent options from local craft brewers like Sly Fox Brewery, Yards Brewing, and the Philadelphia Brewing Company.

Cantina Los Caballitos gets its name from the narrow shot glass traditionally used to drink tequila, and this is the place to expand your tequila knowledge while doing a bit of people watching. The kitchen offers up delicious Mexican street food classics until 1 am, because nothing settles the stomach after a flight of Mezcals quite like an onion-and-cilantro-topped pork carnitas taco, accompanied by sour cream and fresh pico de gallo.