I’m back to follow up on Tuesday’s post, which was a hodge-podge of partial trip reports. Today, I’ll focus on food I’ve enjoyed and photographically documented in my home region. Most of these meals go back to before the creation of this blog. It’s too bad I couldn’t see into the future well enough to start photographing all of my meals of note much sooner. I still have vivid memories of some of my favorite restaurants over the years; places like Le Bec-Fin – the highest rated restaurant in Philadelphia for many years; Captain Chet’s Blue Point – a dive where I downed many mussels and crabs in my teens and twenties; the old Howard Johnson’s on the Roosevelt Boulevard in Northeast Philly – the only place in my grandparents’ neighborhood where they were willing to eat on the rare occasions that my grandmother didn’t cook; and the venerable Imperial Inn – my longtime Chinatown favorite. But alas, I have no photos of those experiences.
Among the relatively few meals I do have documentation for, one of the standouts is the dinner I enjoyed with friends and former colleagues at Abe Fisher in Philadelphia’s Center City. It’s one of the restaurants in chef-restaurateur Michael Solomonov’s local food empire. While some of his other spots focus on Israeli cuisine, Abe Fisher’s menu centers on food of the Jewish diaspora. My main reason for wanting to eat there was to try their take on Montreal smoked meat, the central component of that city’s Jewish deli scene.
I mentioned in Tuesday’s post that my wife and I didn’t make it to any delis while vacationing in Montreal, so I had no frame of reference for this dish. But in photos I had seen, it looked similar to pastrami.
As is often the case with Solomonov restaurants, the smoked meat at Abe Fisher is kicked up a notch from the norm. It’s made with a humongous rack of beef short ribs rather than the more standard brisket. After the meat is finished cooking, but before it’s sliced for sandwiches, a server brings the entire rack out for presentation to wet the appetite.
It’s then taken back to the kitchen, where it’s sliced into small strips that are served on a large plate with a loaf of rye bread and condiments on the side for self-serve sandwich preparation.
If there is such a thing as high-end deli, this is it. We devoured it all and loved every bite.
A few years after my Abe Fisher meal, Solomonov opened Rooster Soup Company, which was essentially a cross between a diner and a Jewish deli. It was also a charity project, with the profits going to feed less fortunate Philadelphians.
The flavor of Rooster’s corned beef was off the charts. It came on extra-thick rye and was also some of the moistest deli meat I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, this restaurant didn’t remain open very long, but I did manage to down a few of their corned beef sandwiches during its relatively brief period of operation. Here is a photo of one I had for lunch at my office.
While there is some very good Jewish deli to be had in Philly, the city is rightfully more associated with Italian food. Many of the classic old Italian eateries, most of which were in South Philadelphia, have closed over the years. But there are still a few in the Bela Vista section of South Philly. One is Ralph’s, which is the oldest Italian restaurant in the U.S. continuously run by the same family. It’s been years since I’ve eaten there and I have no photos to show for those past meals.
But around the corner from Ralph’s sits Dante & Luigi’s, which is nearly as old as Ralph’s – having opened in 1899 – and a lot more elegant.
D&L is my favorite of the city’s old-school Italian restaurants that remain. I’ve had a few memorable meals there over the years and am pleased to have photos from the last one, which was in 2019.
In addition to my wonderful manicotti, I enjoyed one of the restaurant’s specialties – beef braciole. Dante & Luigi’s version includes hard-boiled egg and prosciutto in addition to the more common bread crumbs, herbs and cheese.
In the same neighborhood, and also in the heart of the legendary Italian Market, stands Villa di Roma, which isn’t as old as D&L or Ralph’s, but has still been feeding red gravy-hungry Philadelphians for generations.
An old friend and I met up at the Villa for lunch at their bar just this past summer. It is depicted in the film, The Irishman, as being a swanky joint. But in reality, it’s a lot more casual than Martin Scorsese would have you believe.
I went old-school that day, ordering ziti and meatballs with the Villa’s legendary red gravy.
As great as Philly’s Italian restaurant scene is – and it also features a number of excellent newer restaurants that specialize in cuisine from various regions within Italy – if I were to pick one food genre that the city excels at above all other locales in the U.S., it would be Italian long-roll sandwiches.
Most of you know that I have a fondness for cheesesteaks and write about them here frequently. There are also roast pork sandwiches that usually include broccoli rabe and sharp Provolone cheese and some fantastic meatball sandwiches. But the classic Italian hoagie takes a back seat to none of those. One of the best purveyors of hoagies in South Philly – or anywhere else – is Pastaficio, a small grocery store and sandwich shop that sits not that far from Philadelphia’s sports stadium complex and in a shopping center with a couple other well-known food establishments.
While in that neighborhood to pick up a rib roast for dry-aging at one of South Philly’s best butchers during the summer of 2020, I stopped at Pastaficio for an Italian hoagie. I may be more of a cheesesteak guy, but this was one memorable sandwich. The roll was tremendous, everything was perfectly proportioned and the overall flavor was to die for.
A few months before that visit to Pastaficio, I tried a more unusual long-roll sandwich at a classic luncheonette called The Hungry A, which has been serving up breakfast and lunch in Springfield, PA, since the mid 60s. Their walls are covered with old posters – many of them with an opera theme – and newspapers.
My main reason for visiting The Hungry A was to try their Burgerama sandwich, which is made of loose ground beef, cheese and the toppings of your choice on a long Italian roll. It was very good, although I think I’d get a double next time to improve the meat to roll ratio.
During the summer of 2016, my wife and I drove out to western Montgomery County, PA, on a mission to try two old-school drive-ins, both of which are known for broasted chicken.
The Hilltop Drive-In of Pottstown, PA – which may have undergone changes since we were there, as it appears to now be called Hilltop Pizza – looks like it’s been transported out of the 1950s.
My dark-meat plate was good, although not comparable to the great fried chicken I’ve had in the South and Midwest. I washed it down with a cherry shake.
Speck’s Drive-In of Collegeville, PA, is a relatively short ride from the Hilltop and has been owned and operated by the same family since 1953.
I thought Speck’s chicken was superior to what I had at the Hilltop, as was my second cherry shake of the day.
The Philly metro area includes South Jersey and northern Delaware, both of which are home to old-school burger joints that looked well worth leaving Pennsylvania to try.
I first discovered the Charcoal Pit of Wilmington, Delaware, on a couple roadfood websites years back and have been there a few times. My last visit was in late 2018, when three friends and I headed south for burgers and ice cream. The Pit is another place with a look out of the 50s, and, in fact, it has been in operation since 1956.
Their burgers and onion rings are top notch. I washed mine down with a Black & White malt, while one of my companions enjoyed a great-looking hot fudge sundae for dessert.
Across the Delaware River from Wilmington sits Lapp’s Olympia Dairy Bar of Penns Grove, New Jersey, which I found online more recently. My wife, brother-in-law, and I checked it out during the summer of 2019 and came away from the experience extremely impressed.
My burger and peanut butter shake were outstanding, while my wife enjoyed her pulled pork – which, based on my taste-test, had a hint of genuine smoke – and my brother-in-law his jumbo hot dog.
Philadelphia’s pizza scene has improved considerably in recent years, as a number of new shops that sell Neapolitan-style pies have popped up. But no pizza has made a bigger impression on the city than those that were turned out by Pizzeria Beddia. In fact, no less an authority than Bon Appétit Magazine pronounced it to be the best pizza in America.
The original Pizzeria Beddia, which is where we went during the summer of 2017, was a tiny shop with only a couple tables. Most of their business was takeout. The pizzeria was open a few evenings per week and getting a pie involved arriving early and waiting in line. We got there about two hours before opening time and grabbed a couple not-so-comfortable seats on the sidewalk. On the bright side, we were first in line. And on an even brighter note, the pizza was worth the wait.
I didn’t agree that it was the best pizza in the country, as I am a New Haven apizza loyalist. But it was certainly up there with any pie I’ve had in my home region. My wife went with mushrooms on her half, while I opted for plain.
Joe Beddia closed his little shop and moved into a much bigger space with plenty of seating at some point after our visit. We haven’t been there yet.
While I have no photos of my long-ago meals at the seafood shack known as Captain Chet’s Blue Point, I do have a few from a place I’ve discovered more recently – the Original Clam Tavern of Clifton Heights, PA.
Although I’ve only known about them for about a decade, they appear to have been around a lot longer than that. The exterior looks like a classic corner bar, but the interior is old-school seafood restaurant all the way, with fish tanks and wood paneled walls that have displays of shells and fish hanging on them.
While my companion enjoyed an attractive fried seafood platter, I followed my usual ordering pattern at the Clam Tavern. I’m not sure I’ve ever had an entree during my visits because their selection of appetizers is so enticing. I usually get an array of clams and mussels, but stuck with the former this time around. There was a big tray of their trademark baked clams and a bowl of steamed clams in white sauce, which I sopped up with numerous slices of fresh bread.
I’m closing this post out with a home-cooked meal.
Call us boring if you will, but my wife and I have a tradition of staying in and cooking something special on New Year’s Eve. Back in 2011 – our last New Year’s Eve in the Center City condo where we lived before moving out to the burbs – the menu featured something extra special; Lamb Wellington.
I was curious about Beef Wellington, but my wife isn’t much of a beef person. So I suggested we make it with a small lamb roast instead, and it turned out beautifully.
I prepared the roast, while she made the pastry shell.
This is such a tiny sampling of the great food I’ve eaten close to home over the years, but unfortunately, it’s the best I can do. I’m not real big on writing about meals that I can’t show you.
I expect to get back onto the cheesesteak treadmill tomorrow. See you then.