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Bellyfull: Philly's Passyunk Avenue


The latest happening restaurant row in Philadelphia is also the city's oldest commercial district and the nation's oldest Italian-American commercial strip. Though Passyunk Avenue is still home to more children's shoppes stuffed with frilly communion dresses than diversified retail, business has been lifted by the new restaurants and bars that serve the growing community of families and young people that populate the dense South Philadelphia neighborhood.

Locals, like Lynn Rinaldi, chef and owner of Paradiso restaurant, still call their suddenly press-worthy street the Avenue. To the press covering them, it goes by P'UNK Ave., also the name of revolutionary geek Geoff DiMasi's website and software design company. The two schools of South Philadelphia--the natives who grew up around the corner, and the young creative class that has settled here seeking approachable property values and friendly community--collide on Passyunk Avenue, where the old world is under renovation.

When Rinaldi opened Paradiso five years ago, "there was not much going on on Passyunk Ave. Growing up on 12th Street between Dickinson and Tasker, the Avenue was our little Main Street and I thought it could be again. I could see the potential."

Still drawing the locals at that time were Marra's, with its pizza oven constructed of bricks from Mt. Vesuvius in 1927, and Mr. Martino's diminutive Roman trattoria, where James Beard Award-winning local celebrity chef Jose Garces proposed to his wife. The classical red-gravy destinations are possessed of a certain original-gangster élan; the modern Abruzzese cooking from chef Luciana Spurio at newcomer Le Virtù has garnered even more attention for the Mezzogiorno. The good eats (Italian and otherwise) on Passyunk Avenue could fill a book; below, find your must-stop agenda for destinations old, new and upcoming.

Good Health & Family

In this mozzarella-laden environment, the time is ripe for some lighter options. South Philly native Rocco Cima, a trained chef and Q102 DJ, will open Fuel, a health-conscious lounge/café where no item tops 500 calories, on September 10. The whole family, including those with gluten or dairy allergies, can find a treat at B2, Nancy Trachtenberg's popular second coffee shop. Old City coffee, vegan and dairy soft-serve and gluten-free muffins and cookies join pressed sandwiches and a wide range of freshly squeezed juices and smoothies to keep this corner lively all day... and dogs are welcomed, too.

Grocery

The narrow, provolone-scented alley of Lucio J. Mancuso & Son is where you will find Philadelphia Weekly food critic Adam Erace's favorite "firm but not dry, sweet cream" hand-made ricotta. Perhaps that's why the writer and his brother, Andrew, are locating their upcoming Green Aisle Grocery just a stone's throw away. Green Aisle, slated for a September opening after cosmetic renovations, will carry "food curios and also high quality, sustainably-created essentials a cook needs," says Erace. Items the locals would have to travel to Whole Foods for, like Spanish olive oil and pomegranate molasses, in addition to fresh, backyard-grown herbs and prepared foods from local chefs (like Café con Chocolate's unapologetically fiery chili) will round out the inventory.

Scenes

One of the most easily denigrated demographics in Philadelphia is the young creative class referred to as "hipsters".  Easily identified by their faux-impoverished style of dress and omnipresent bicycles, hipster-bashing is to the noughties what yuppie-hating was to the eighties. Scruffy appearance notwithstanding, they are largely responsible for the renaissance of cool that brought the Pub on Passyunk East (P.O.P.E.), the Royal Tavern and Cantina los Caballitos to the Avenue. Excellent craft beer selections, festive brunches, and plenty of vegan and vegetarian choices have established all three as anchors of the Avenue. Royal and Cantina co-owner Stephen Simons reflected on the atmosphere of the street three years ago: "People thought we were crazy when we said we were opening a Mexican restaurant on Passyunk. I said 'everyone likes margaritas.'"

More Than Just Italian

One of the most vibrant communities in South Philly hails from Puebla, Mexico. Cocina Poblana is deliciously represented at El Zarape, where you can tote your own Modelo Especial to accompany the standout tacos al pastor. A bottle of Mersault will be more appropriate to BYO when principals from two of the city's most vaunted French restaurants take to the Avenue this fall. Jessie Prawlucki, pastry chef at Le Bec Fin, Lee Styer, sous chef at Le Bec Fin and Tory Keomanivong, a banquet captain at Lacroix, will debut Fond, a inexpensive new American concept, in September.

Gimme Some Sugar

The Avenue's highest-profile opening this summer was undoubtedly Capogiro Gelato Artisan's cool blue scoop shop. With enough accolades to cover every wall of their three other locations and bold-faced names stopping by (First Lady Michelle Obama treated her daughters to gelato at the original Capogiro location at 13th and Sansom on August 8), owners John and Stephanie Reitano could have opened anywhere. John Reitano explained the appeal of the Avenue. "1625 Passyunk Avenue formerly housed Roselena's ice cream shop for... 20 or so years. Our landlord, Gina Sole, once scooped ice cream for the proprietors of Roselena's. The owners sold the building to Gina and Gina reached out to us to ask if we would open up there. We had been talking about opening an old-school gelato scoop shop for some time, and when Gina approached us with this opportunity, the history, the space and the Avenue all felt right."

Five years after opening Paradiso, the Avenue still feels right to Lynn Rinaldi. The godmother of this restaurant renaissance has nothing but good words for all the new eateries on her street; she even introduced Fond's owners to their location. " More restaurants opening makes it more of a destination. You can get a cocktail here, then have dinner at a BYOB. When Cantina was opening up, somebody asked me if I was nervous, and I said 'No way! I want more.' It only brings you more business."

In October of 2008, Rinaldi and her fiancée, chef Corey Baver, opened Izumi, a BYO sushi restaurant with outdoor seating on Passyunk Square's Singing Fountain. "It started out as a little joke," says Rinaldi. "Then the more I thought about it, it seemed like a good idea. There was no sushi past South Street going south at all.  People would walk by [during construction] and we'd tell them it was going to be a sushi restaurant, and they'd say, 'Thank God.'"


Felicia D''mbrosio is co-editor of Philadelphia City Paper's new food and drink blog, Meal Ticket. She can be seen about town cycling through traffic at breakneck speed, holding forth at the finest, cheapest gin mills, and consuming as much raw fish as a small killer whale. Send feedback here.

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Photos:

The Veggie Napoleon at The Pub On Passyunk East ( P.O.P.E )

Corey Baver and Lynn Rinaldi of Paradiso and Izumi Restauants

Looking west down Passyunk to Michael's Cafe and Capogiro Gelateria

Inside Nancy
Trachtenberg's B2 Cafe

Mancuso's Cheese Shop

All Photographs by Michael Persico
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