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