Philadelphia’s Italian food street market will make you ravenous. It is impossible to resist eating … a lot … at The South 9th Street Italian Market. Give in to Edesia (the Roman goddess of feasting). You are powerless (or at least I am.) So on the first Sunday in November (a cold, grey morning when most people are wrapped in an afghan sipping their coffee at home), I jump in my car at 8:30 am to drive to Philadelphia. My destination is S. 9th Street.
Size of Italian Market
The Market boasts its own Visitor’s Center as well as website. This historic institution bills itself as “America’s Oldest & Continuously Operating Outdoor Market.” It is located in South Philadelphia’s Bella Vista and Passyunk Square communities. It is a collection of nearly 200 individual business situated between two public parks and two churches. The Italian market spans 20 city blocks around 8th, 9th and 10th streets.
“We are the Home to generations-old family businesses as well as many new, ethnic family businesses eager to share their traditions.”—9th Street Station Italian Market
For example, vendors’ booths fill every last square inch of the sidewalk on 9th Street. Automobile traffic slows to 5 mph. I marvel at this bustling outdoor emporium. There is not one parking spot on this crowded street even at 9 a.m. Darn! I will probably have to pay for parking at a garage.
Cheap Fresh Produce
I slowly drive past tables heaped with fresh vegetables and fruits. I am desperate to get out and shop. And I feel certain this is how Philly chefs must feel as they head down to the food street market in the early morning hours to buy their fresh produce and herbs. There is nothing like smelling basil. The sweet anise scent fills my nostrils.
“A South Philadelphia mainstay since the 19th century.”
By the way, if you can’t tell yet, food street markets are an obsession for me whenever I travel—Croatia, France, Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Switzerland and yes, my home town, Washington, DC. What could be a better way IMHO than to discover a city by eating the street food like the locals? And since Italian food is my favorite cuisine in the world, it is a no-brainer that I will book the 9th Street Station Italian Market walking tour during my recent visit to Philadelphia.
My tour guide is Jen, a transplanted New Jersey gal who is a huge cheerleader for Philly. (Honestly, she is a walking encyclopedia as she reels of historical facts about the City of Brotherly Love & Sisterly Affection.) My foodie tour is organized by Free Tours by Foot. My guide provides the historical and cultural context for why this 100-year-old market is adored by restaurant chefs, residents and tourists.
Now the evening before my tour, Jen texts me where we will meet at 10:30 am. She also says that I am the only participant. The other “group” who booked had cancelled. They were concerned about the unrest in the city. The National Guard was put on alert. Now I am worried. Do I really want to risk getting caught in the city if there are demonstrations? When I am poised to cancel by text, Jen eases my worries. She says any protests will occur near City Hall and not in this quiet neighborhood.
So I opt to be Jen’s one participant. Firstly, I think it is the best food-history-culture tour of Philly EVER. Secondly, Jen’s knowledge of why the food market came into being makes so much sense. And finally, it helped provide a livelihood for the Italian immigrants. (The second wave of immigrants mainly arrived from southern Italy and Sicily.)
But most important, Jen’s information prepares me about the types of foods that are famous in the Italian Market.
My 5 MUST EAT foods on my Italian food tour were sfogiatelle, tomato pie, big meatball, gravy and cannoli.
5 Must Eat Foods on my Italian Food Street Tour
4 Gravy (Philly slang for long simmered tomato sauce)
Search for Espresso
Jen and I meet at 10:30 a.m. at the Market Welcome Store. We start our tour by stopping at Anthony’s Italian Coffee & Chocolate House. I step inside to order a cafe latte (two espresso shots) and homemade sfogliatella. There are multiple options for pastry filling. I choose the tried and true: Nutella. (I am sure Italian-American chef Giada De Laurentiis would approve.) Then I step outside to sit on a curb while Jen recounts the story of this immigrant Italian family who ran numerous enterprises.
For example, it all dates back to 1906 when an adventurous fisherman from Sicily (named Tommaso Anastasio) comes in search of the American Dream. During the Great Depression, his son Anthony would have to drop out of elementary school to earn money for the family. Eventually he opens a store in the market. In 1995, his grandson Anthony transforms his grandfather’s original store into an Italian coffee house at 903. S. 9th St (nearly 60 years after Tony parked his push cart.)
Immigrants’ History in Italian Market
Now I also learn that the market began in the 1880s after Italian immigrant Antonio Palumbo opened a boarding house in the neighborhood for other Italians. (Antonio’s son, Frank Palumbo Sr., transformed Palumbo’s into a banquet hall and entertainment complex. It attracted such stars as Mario Lanza, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Frankie Avalon and Sammy Davis Jr.) There is a sign on 9th Street commemorating this institution.
After I finish eating my pastry, Jen leads us off 9th Street to look at some mural art. She also points out Dante’s and Luigi’s on the corner of 10th and Catherine Streets. Jen says it is the oldest Italian restaurant in continuous operation. A random stranger stops to share that the food is incredible. Apparently chef Jose Garces (who won in the second season of The Next Iron Chef ) loves this restaurant.
Eat A Cannoli
Next up we stop at Isgro Pastries (1009 Christian Street). This venerable Italian bakery is famous for its cannoli, wedding cakes, cookies, custards, tarts and other pastries. (Watch this news interview of Isgro Pastries’ owner about cannoli is his favorite pastry.) Frank Sinatra would send his driver over to pick up orders when in town. And Jen tells me that Pope Francis also ordered cannoli from the shop. The bakery’s secret is the mascarpone (Italian soft cheese) filling, which is tart rather than sweet. Jen tells me to save my pastry because we are going to eat tomato pie.
Two Catholic Churches, One United Parish
But first we pass St. Paul’s Catholic Church (923 Christian Street). St. Paul Parish is seated in the heart of the Italian Market in South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Nearby on Montrose Street is Saint Mary’s Magdalen de Pazzi. Two great churches built within seven years of each other and one great parish. St. Paul’s was founded by Irish immigrants in 1845. St. Mary’s was established by Bishop John Neumann in 1852 “to meet the spiritual needs of Philadelphia’s Italian immigrant community.”
It was the first national Catholic Italian parish in the United States. Its operations would grow to include an orphanage and school. St. Mary’s Magdalen annually hosts the Procession of Saints (except in 2020 due to the pandemic). There are two amazing videos that provide an “inside tour” of St. Paul’s church and St. Mary’s Magdalen de Pazzi. They are architectural jewels.
Jen explained to me that establishing separate Irish and Italian Catholic parishes helped to keep the peace among these two immigrant groups. But there were outside pressures as well. In the mid 1850s, the “Know Nothing” political party conspired to make life difficult for the immigrants by breaking church windows and sabotaging church property.
Iconic Tomato Pie at Sarcone’s Bakery
After church, we walk back to 9th Street. Our destination is Sarcone’s Bakery, a “5th Generation Italian Bakery in South Philly—“a staple in South Philadelphia, not only for its bread but also for its integrity.” It is located at the north end of the Market near Fitzwater. The shop is quiet now at mid-morning but I earlier saw a long line of socially distancing customers waiting to buy their bread. Jen says I must order a slice of Sarcone’s famous tomato pie. The bread is toasted and slathered with thick pizza red sauce. Mama Mia, it’s delizioso.
When we finish eating, it is time to restart our walking tour. Since it is now pouring down raining, I leave Jen to collect my umbrella in my car. We then back south down 9th Street to check out stores and stalls.
Above all, there is so much variety. The Italian Market is home to the neighborhood’s iconic stores—Claudio’s Specialty Foods (cured meat), DiBruno Bros House of Cheese, Cardenas Oil & Vinegar Taproom, Fante (kitchen supplies) and Grassia’s Italian Market Spice Company. Shoppers can choose between Esposito’s Meats and Cannuli’s Quality Meats and Poultry or buy seafood at Darigo’s Fish & Seafood Market.
Villa di Roma: A Real Red-Sauce Joint
But we are on a mission to eat a “Big Meatball with Gravy” at Villa di Roma, known by locals as a “real red-sauce joint” in the “heart of the Italian Market.” Jen has actually taken some of her tour groups to see the chef make his famous meatballs. Although no recipe has been published, Jen confided that the 50-year-old recipe for the huge all-beef meatballs uses an 80/20 hamburger blend. (“It needs some fat for flavor.”) The chef also uses fresh herbs, toasted bread crumbs and mozzarella cheese.
Luckily, the restaurant sells three balls for $9 smothered in gravy as a takeout at the bar or you can order from the refrigerator case. Run (don’t walk) to order this dish. (The restaurant sells about 400 meatballs a week, according to the restaurant review on Zagat.) I promptly tried to recreate it in my own condo kitchen in Washington DC when I returned.
Shop for Fresh Produce at Food Market
My tour ends with some personal shopping at different vendors’ booths at the food street market. They sell every variety of vegetables—eggplants, onions, tomatoes, zucchini, asparagus, endive. And the cheap prices for the fruit astound me. Two boxes of blackberries for $1? Two large containers of strawberries for $4? $1 each eggplant? Tomatoes $2 a box? How can they sell this produce so cheaply? Should I buy some pots of fresh basil and oregano? I take a huge drag of breath through my mask. It smells like a field in Tuscany.
To put it simply, I don’t want to leave South Philly’s Italian Market. Didn’t I see a Redfin sales sign up in front of a historical row house near Independence National Historic Park? I ponder what it would be like to live in Philadelphia and shop each weekend at this historical food street market. These butcher and fish shops, oil taprooms, specialty good stores and bakeries are throwbacks to another time. And I liked roaming down 9th Street, observing a food market created by immigrants for immigrants that has not only survived, but visibly flourished, for over a century.
One-of-a-Kind Shopping District
The S. 9th Street Italian Market District is rightly proud of its history operating in an old world fashion but recognizing current consumer trends: “It makes us unique. It makes us a special place. It is our hope that for the next 100 years, S. 9th Street will continue to be a community of immigrants dedicated to the main street small business concept, servicing the community, while continuing this unique shopping tradition.”
Generations of immigrant families have lived and worked here side by side.
Upcoming Citywide Philadelphia Events
Christmas Village in Philadelphia is located at LOVE Park and City Hall from Thanksgiving through Christmas Eve in 2020. Christmas Village will feature over 60 vendors selling authentic European food, ornaments and arts & crafts from all over the world!
The proposed 2021 dates for the South 9th Street Italian Market Festival are May 22-23, 2021. This event is billed as “Philadelphia’s Largest Block Party.” The 2020 festival was cancelled due to COVID-19.
Parkway Museums Districts currently continues to schedule events at individual museums although operating hours have changed during the pandemic. Check out my Philadephia City Tour article to learn why this city deserves its moniker as “City of Sisterly Affection.”
Visit Philadelphia is a great resource for any tourist traveling to Philadelphia. I visited the website countless times during my whirlwind 48-hour trip. I checked on events, museums, tours and attractions.
S. 9th Street Italian Market Address
919 S 9th St, Philadelphia, PA 19147
Phone: (215) 278-2903
Open year-round, this historic market along 10 city blocks features food vendors & a visitor center.
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