A native returns to Northeast Philly
PHOTOGRAPH BY JACK E. KAPP
It’s with a strange mix of hesitation and pride that I tell people I meet in Center City that I’m from Northeast Philly.
I’m proud to be a city girl. I went to public school for 12 years, took SEPTA alone and hung out on front stoops. That city grit hasn’t fully faded, but today I could just as easily be mistaken for someone who grew up in the ‘burbs. That’s because I got out of Northeast Philly at age 19 and never thought I’d look back.
When I arrived at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., for college, I thought the on-campus Bertucci’s was tops. When I saw the menu for the annual gala at my first internship, I told my boss that I’d eat dinner at home—the first course was carrot bisque. That was far too fancy for this Northeast Philly teenager.
But, during the decade when I lived in Washington, I grew up and so did my taste in food. I became an encyclopedia of restaurants, chefs, ingredients and trends. I worked at the National Restaurant Association for four years—a dream job. On the side, I launched a second career as a food and travel writer. I’ve eaten at some of the best restaurants in the country, and a couple abroad, too. During that time, my husband Joe became an amazing home cook. (Thanks, Alton Brown!) I haven’t feared a bowl of carrot soup since. Then, Philly sang its siren song and lured me home.
Joe and I spent four months living with my parents in Rhawnhurst while we hunted for a house and got settled in at our new jobs. Talk about a culture shock.
Northeast Philly is all but forgotten by most Philadelphians— in spite of the fact that roughly one-third of the city’s population lives there. This blind spot goes double for the food scene. That’s not totally without reason—there are few modern restaurants, and no well-known chefs for miles. The Northeast is a place where middle-class families buy their first home and often never move out of it. The neighborhood’s food culture is driven by styles and techniques passed down through generations of Irish, Italian, German and Jewish families: the bakeries, delis and other eateries of the Northeast have been making their specialties for decades. While it may not be the most Instagrammable food in town, it is often some of the best.
Take a hoagie from Dattilo’s in Rhawnhurst: Layers of thinly sliced meat cured in the back of the store, fresh mozzarella and a special dressing that took 15 years to perfect, all on house-baked rolls with just the right chewy-yet-soft texture—plus imported cheese, antipasti, Italian sodas and filled-to-order cannoli. That’s Joe’s favorite place. He’s the Italian one.
I’m the Jewish one. I go for densely delicious bagels from Nate’s Hot Bagels, with the thick deli cream cheese sold two doors down at Steve Stein’s Famous Deli. The neighborhood’s diners were a staple of my childhood, too. I’d order matzo-ball soup and extra-crispy home fries. Recently, at Country Club Diner, my Bubbie ordered mac and cheese with two sides . . . of mac and cheese. After all these years, it’s still that good. But you can see how it might make carrot bisque sound downright adventurous now, right?
Immersed in the old neighborhood for months, we ate more than our fair share of hoagies and bagel brunches. Then we wanted to explore.
Like many other places in Philadelphia and the country, the old neighborhood is changing. Brazilian, Asian, Russian and Albanian families are making their culinary marks on the area. One day, at my Grandma’s pool, we asked her Ukrainian neighbor what she thought of the local Uzbek restaurants. She gave rave reviews, so we went to Shish-Kabob Palace that night.
We ordered khachapuri, the cheese-filled bread that goes for as much as $18 an order at hip spots in D.C. Here it was three dollars. We also got Uzbek plov with tender lamb and kabobs of all kinds (chicken hearts, sea bass, steak). We brought a couple of cans of beer (this is still a Northeast Philly BYO, after all); dinner was about $35.
We told everyone about it. Then my parents went. Then they took Grandma, then Joe and I went back, then we went with Grandma and soon we’ll take her for her 81st birthday. Somehow, along the way, it became one of “our places.”
Northeast Philly is simultaneously trying to evolve and stay the same. It’s the same push and pull I feel about the neighborhood. I live in Center City now and love the food scene there. We’re within walking distance of tasting menus, pop-up feasts, craft cocktails, celebrity chefs and gourmet food trucks. Still, the Northeast keeps me coming back—for my family, of course, but also for the food we eat together. Not to mention the three-dollar khachapuri.
1683 Grant Ave.
8000 Horrocks St.
Country Club Diner
1717 Cottman Ave.