A Food Renaissance on Philadelphia's East Passyunk Avenue

Courtesy of Passyunk Avenue Revitalization Corporation

Over the past 10 years, a restaurant revival has swept through South Philadelphia, turning a stretch of the city's historic Italian neighborhood into one of Philly's top dining destinations.

On a recent afternoon on South Philadelphia’s East Passyunk Avenue, a tiled fountain glitters, children shout in the sun, and people play chess and lick scoops of gelato. Strains of Frank Sinatra wash over the scene, which seems almost frozen in time. It’s hard to believe that an abandoned cheesesteak stand stood on this spot only nine years ago.

The commercial hub of Philadelphia’s historic Italian neighborhood, East Passyunk Avenue has been undergoing a major food renaissance over the past decade, and the fountain is at its center. New independent businesses have turned this corridor of old-school Italian eateries and Catholic school uniform stores into a mandatory stop for food lovers from across the region.

“It’s been an incredible change,” Francis Cretarola, a co-owner of two restaurants on the Avenue, says. When Cretarola and his wife opened their first venture, Le Virtù, in 2007, the food scene consisted mainly of “red gravy joints,” (gravy being the local term for marinara sauce). Now, Philly’s classic Italian American spots sit alongside French bistros, craft bars, and James Beard-nominated bakeries.  

Renee Gilinger, the head of the East Passyunk Avenue Business Improvement District, says that the economic downturn in 2008 ironically helped to fuel a burst of entrepreneurship here. People who’d lost their old jobs had nothing to lose and decided to take on the risks of the restaurant business, and the lower rents in this area made it attractive to first time business owners. In 2009 alone, 20 new businesses opened.

The new restaurants are largely chef-driven; many of the toques live nearby and maintain close ties to their neighbors. “Everybody is in their kitchen every night,” says Townsend Wentz, the owner and chef of Townsend, a French restaurant on Passyunk. “They are all intimately involved in everything.” Wentz feels that they are all stronger for being surrounded by other healthy businesses.

More restaurants are joining them all the time, like Bing Bing Dim Sum (Wentz recommends the turnip cake), Noord (Scandinavian comfort food), and Palladino’s, recently awarded three bells out of four by Craig Laban, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s food critic. Stateside, a bar across from the fountain, offers a selection of domestic beers, ryes, and whiskeys.

The ongoing flurry of openings and recognition is exciting, but what makes the Avenue such a charming setting for a stroll and a meal is that the new restaurants coexist with the Italian cheesemongers and sausage makers who have been here for decades. The shop windows are still cluttered with jars of sauce, sparkly Communion dresses and mary-janes, and signs for homemade ravioli and roast pork.

Here are six picks for dining, shopping, and dessert on the Avenue.

Le Virtù and Brigantessa
Le Virtù focuses on food from Abruzzo, a mountainous region in southern Italy. Ingredients are locally sourced or imported; Cretarola and his wife Cathy Lee travel to Abruzzo to collect the saffron themselves. Although some locals were initially baffled by Le Virtu’s Old-World dishes (“I remember a guy sitting at the bar and just saying, ‘Is there anything Italian on this menu?’” Cretarola says), the community has come to embrace the restaurant in the years since. Order the maccheroni alla mugnaia, a single-strand pasta of up to 60 feet long that’s served on a wooden board, and the affetati misti, a salumi and antipasti plate that shows off the restaurant’s selection of house-cured meats. (Their fish stew is pictured above.) Nearby Brigantessa, a bar and foneria, is also owned by Cretarola and his wife. Brigantessa serves authentic Neapolitan pizza; the oven, built from brick and mortar shaped from the ash of Vesuvius, had to be shipped from Italy by boat. Five of Brigantessa’s 16 taps are devoted to rare Italian craft beers. (Their artichokes with capers are pictured above.) 1927 E. Passyunk Ave.; 215-271-5626; and 1520 E. Passyunk Ave.; 267-318-7341.

Owned and run by Nicholas Elmi, the season 11 winner of Top Chef, Laurel opened on Passyunk in November 2013; it’s been wildly popular ever since. A BYOB restaurant with a tasting menu devoted to a modern, creative approach to French classics, the best dishes from Laurel’s changing repertoire on a recent visit included cured fluke, set in a splash of salty citrus; a reinvented duck confit cassoulet, dusted in onion ash, with crispy chicken skin folded in; and silky soft risotto, topped with black truffles shaved tableside. The highlight was another thoughtful duck dish, which combined sour-sweet huckleberries with duck heart and a cocoa-chicory crumble with duck breast. Reservations are hard to come by (Laurel is a small, intimate space, with only 22 seats), so plan ahead. 1617 E. Passyunk Ave.; 215-271-8299.

Another relatively new addition to the Avenue, Townsend, like Laurel and the nearby restaurants Fond and Will, specializes in French-inspired cuisine (pictured above). (Chef Wentz attributes the spate of French restaurants to the fact that carving a niche in Italian cuisine here is more difficult given the steep and well-established competition.) Townsend is more spacious than Laurel, with an elegant archway, full bar, fireplace, and lots of natural light. Order the marinated hamachi served with lime and sesame seeds; escargot soaked in creamy, bacon-sherry crème fraîche; the brandade, perched on a square of brioche, and the rabbit pot au feu, braised and accompanied by diced potatoes and carrots. The wine list is mostly comprised of bottles from France, with a few selections from Spain and Italy. 1623 E. Passyunk Ave.; 267-639-3203.

Green Aisle Grocery
Looking for souvenirs of your eating adventures in Philly? Green Aisle Grocery (pictured below), run by two brothers with a long family history in the area, Adam and Andrew Erace, sells local treats like John & Kira’s ladybug chocolates, Zahav hummus, and jars of jams, butters, preserves, and pickles made for the store. Opened in 2009, the small grocery (and its second location) is a favorite of Philadelphia locavores and foodies. You’ll also find a selection of meats, cheese, and produce. 1618 E. Passyunk Ave.; 215-465-1411.

Philadelphia natives are familiar with this gelato shop’s five outposts throughout the city, but if you’ve never tried Capogiro’s shifting roster of artisanal flavors (think heirloom apple, pear with bourbon, and black walnut), a warm evening in South Philly is the perfect opportunity to raise a spoon. 1625 E. Passyunk Ave.; 215-462-3790.

Though not technically part of the tight cluster of restaurants and shops on East Passyunk, Paesano’s Italian sandwich shop is only a 15 minute walk north, nestled in the historic Italian market. If you’re looking for over-the-top sandwiches and cheesesteaks aren’t your thing, leave the neon lights of Geno’s behind for Paesano’s unique creations, stuffed with flavorful ingredients like whole roasted suckling pig, broccoli rabe, and fried lasagna bolognese. 1017 S. Ninth St.; 215-440-0371.

Lucio J Mancuso & Son
For a taste of the old South Philly, visit third-generation cheesemonger Mr. Mancuso at his shop on the Avenue. “It’s a step back in time. All the old guys still hang out,” Renee Gilinger says of the neighborhood regulars who can usually be found chatting and smoking outside the store. Pick up fresh mozzarella, artichoke hearts, and baked ricotta for a snack or fountain-side picnic. “Mr. Mancuso started it all, probably,” Gilinger says. 1902 E. Passyunk Ave.; 215-389-1817.

Valet parking on the Avenue is available six days a week starting at 5 P.M.; you’ll get a discount if you have a reservation at one of several nearby restaurants. East Passyunk celebrates its food culture on April 26 with Flavors of the Avenue, an annual food festival. Sample dishes from more than 24 local restaurants, drink Victory craft beers, take advantage of cocktail and shopping specials, and listen to live music. Tickets for the Food Tent start at $45; the street festival is free.

Image credits: Courtesy of Brigantessa; Courtesy of Le Virtu; Courtesy of Townsend; Courtesy of Green Aisle Grocery