Sunday, June 3, 2018

Una Bella Vista

Each spring, Philly’s Italian Market sets up a rollicking two-day block party. The music is loud, the people-watching spectacular, and the food plentiful. In search of lunch, one might walk the eight-block festival and consider a porchetta sandwich or ravioli, barbacoa tacos or tamales, skewered grilled quail or papaya salad. (‘Italian Market’ is sort of a misnomer these days; in the 1980s and 90s, immigrants populated the historically Italian neighborhood with Vietnamese, Cambodian and Mexican restaurants.)

Natalie and Hope, first-timers at the festival, were strategic: “We sat for a while and watched other people eat, and then decided what to eat,” Natalie said.

They chose Dibruno Brothers’ spinach arancini and chicken meatball hoagie, and made a tentative plan to return for Esposito’s massive porchetta sandwich. At a table set up a comfortable distance from the throngs on 9th street, they had a prime view of the festival’s main attraction: the Greased Pole Competition.

It’s an old, offbeat Philly tradition: people attempt to shinny up lard-sheened pole to reach sharp provolone, sausage, gift cards and cash hanging from the top. Some competitors form teams that meet to practice throughout the year; others join hodgepodge groups recruited by the MC on the day of the festival. A crowd assembles around the piazza on 9th and Montrose Streets to cheer and fling their shirts to the top climbers to use as grease rags.

No joke.

“That’s the way…”

“His hands are all up on his butt!”

“His arms are going to give out!”

Natalie and Hope scrutinized a team of six – two at the base of the pole gripping each other’s forearms, two climbing to stand on their shoulders, and two steadying ankles and boosting butts with both arms.  

“We’ve been watching this for a while,” Natalie said. “It’s the same group – they keep getting a little higher.” But the dangling prizes still hung 30 feet in the air, untouched. The MC, sporting a #GuidoLive t-shirt, tried to cajole a few more volunteers from the crowd.

“I think it’s the Breathalyzer,” Hope said. She suspected that passing the BAC test – a policy put into place two years ago – had deterred many.

Natalie laughed. “When I met up with her this morning, she had a pineapple with rum in it.” Blue Corn Restaurant serves piña coladas in hollowed pineapples.

“An excellent breakfast,” Hope said.

It was her day off. She’d spent the previous week thinning fruit in the rain at North Star Orchards, a farm and orchard in Cochranville known for developing stunning apple varieties. “Apparently the fruit doesn’t taste good if you leave all the clusters,” she told me. Growers typically pluck the diseased and undersized fruit to allow the tree to send its resources to fewer choice specimens.

Hope started working at the farm this spring. Everyday at noon, the entire crew eats lunch together. Hope forages for greens and mushrooms in the woods near the farm to incorporate into her meals.

She’s an urban forager, too.

“There were a bunch of pork skewers in the trash can that she wouldn’t let me eat,” Hope said, leather tassel earrings swishing as she gave Natalie a look.

“I figured there was a reason they were in the trash can.” Natalie says.

Natalie is a front of house operations manager for catering at UPenn. She typically eats lunch with colleagues at Houston Hall. “When we don’t have time it’s a standing lunch with returned hors d’oeuvres from whatever event we’re at,” she said. “It’s the one perk of working in food service – I never have to pay for lunch.”

The two might splurge on a few more lunch bites at the festival, and stick around to watch a dozen pumped bros armed with bath towels storm the piazza.

“Let’s go, let’s go, let’s go!”

 The team built a clenched, grunting tower around the pole and in fewer than five minutes, their top climber was throwing sausages to the ground in triumph. 

Friday, May 18, 2018

W.B. Saul's Brisket

 Steers grazed on an east-facing slope several yards from the Food Sciences building at W.B. Saul High School. A line stretched through the back door where students served beef brisket, pulled pork sandwiches and scoops of ice cream.

It was the 65th annual Country Fair Day at the agricultural high school in Roxborough; visitors shopped for herbs in the greenhouse, listened to students share vermicomposting know-how, toured the farm, and walked down a grassy trail to feed the sheep.

And many parents, alumni, and neighbors lined up for student-made lunch featuring dairy and meat produced on campus.

A senior at W.B. Saul splayed soft rolls in foil-lined paper boats and assembled them above trays of pulled pork and brisket. 

Charles is studying food science and processing, one of the four programs (including horticulture, natural resource management, and animal science) students choose between after their freshman year. “I didn’t know much about food science or nutrition,” he says, “I wanted to learn how to eat healthier.”

Charles wakes up at 5am and catches two buses to get from his home in Southwest Philly to school. But to him, it’s worth it. “It’s like two educations in one,” Charles says. In the morning, he’s in psychology, environmental science, English, and sociology classes; in the afternoon he’s studying food science, safety, and nutrition.

The day before the fair, he helped cut the brisket in Mr. Amoroso’s class. “This is all about student involvement,” the food sciences teacher says. Wearing a white, knee-length butcher coat, he popped between the meat lab (the school sell cuts of campus-raised beef to the public once a year at the fair) and the lunchtime operation, keeping an eye on brisket supply. 

As a student dug her tongs into the juicy brisket I asked if they enjoyed this spread during the school week. “Ha! We wish!” Though they're served the standard school district lunches, they get one special perk: salads made with veggies from the campus CSA farm run by Weavers Way Coop.

The students sold out of brisket a half hour before the end of the open house. “We had four pans!” Charles was incredulous, but Mr. Amoroso wasn't too surprised. Alumni come back for that W.B. Saul flavor, achieved with an extra zingy rub, eight hours in the smokehouse, and, of course, the well-tended steers of last year's pasture.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

A Sure Sell on Jewelers' Row

The first thing Abe ordered at Paul’s Pizza was a tuna hoagie with everything. “I said go crazy – lettuce, banana peppers, onions, tomatoes...” The chunky tuna with a mess of topping on a chewy Italian roll impressed him; it was a hoagie that merited a new lunchtime habit for the graying gentleman who’s been selling diamonds on a small street in Philadelphia for 37 years.

Jewelers’ Row (on Sansom between Seventh and Eighth Streets and on Eighth between Chestnut and Walnut Streets) is the oldest diamond district in the country. Jewelry makers and appraisers have been doing business there since the late 1800s. Abe commutes from New York City to sell his imported diamonds and gemstones to several jewelers on the block. He eats lunch on Jewelers’ Row almost every weekday.

Much like the street outside, the interior at Paul’s Pizza feels decidedly stuck in the early 80s. A glowing menu above a ketchup-red plastic counter advertises Pepper-Mushroom Steak and Chicken Steak Florentine (among 36 other steak variations). There’s a list of burgers, melts, and hoagies, a flounder platter, and the namesake pizza and stromboli. Prices have been modified over the years and the fading black numbers are barely legible.  
Abe sat down at a narrow table with his hoagie and lemon tea Snapple, and offered to cut a section of the sandwich for me to try. He’d had a couple pieces of Philly pretzel with honey mustard earlier, he explained, “That’s how I can share with you.” He sawed at the bread with a plastic knife.

I guessed he’d been killing time with a pretzel excursion because, as he told me, the diamond business on Jewelers’ Row these days is slow. Abe blames the Internet for the downturn in sales over the past ten years. “And extra money doesn’t go to jewelry anymore - people buy clothes and electronics,” he said.

Back in the early 80s, when Abe moved to New York City from Iran, it was a promising industry. A couple of his cousins were already buying diamonds from Israel (which is still one of the world’s biggest diamond producers, alongside Belgium and India) to sell to buyers on Jewelers’ Row. They were making good money.

“We – the guys who come from New York – own this street,” Abe said, gesturing to include a gathering of fellow city commuters eating at a nearby table. Whatever happens in the industry, the Philly jewelers are dependent on the New Yorkers’ importing businesses.

“We eat them for breakfast,” he said, and wiped the corner of his mouth with a paper napkin.

But by the time he’d finished his hoagie, Abe’s confidence had waned. “If I had a chance to pull everything out I would,” he said solemnly. He worries that the future of the diamond industry isn’t promising.

The future of Jewelers’ Row itself is in question too; a local developer has demolition and construction permits for a 16-story residential tower on the 700 block of Sansom Street. The preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia is working to attain historic protection for the five buildings just east of Paul’s Pizza that would be demolished in the developer’s proposal. (You can sign their online petition here.)

For now, Paul’s Pizza is safe, preserving its own piece of history and providing a gathering place for a few not-so-busy businessmen. 

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Feeding the Bird

Lulu surveyed Chestnut Street on a particularly warm afternoon last week. She was out for a late lunch, awaiting her pita at a table outside of Hey Hummus. When a red tray was set in front of her, she swiveled her head to eye the brisket piled in the center of a bowl of hummus.
Just as she was likely considering her first bite, a passerby approached the table. “Can I take a picture?” the woman asked, raising her IPhone. Lulu let her dining companion, Anthony, answer for her.

“Yeah, go ahead,” he said, smiling. The woman stood back and captured the brilliant parrot perched atop a metal chair, poised over a pita pocket. 

Lulu didn’t seem to notice.

 “She’s been cooped up all winter,” Anthony said. On the last day of February, it was 70 degrees outside; he’d stopped home to pick up the bird and bring her out to lunch. He eats out almost everyday, at places like Di Bruno Brother’s and Jane G’s. He looks for healthy dishes – “Something with more protein, less carbs,” he said.

He and Lulu had ended up at Hey Hummus, the new middle eastern spot that opened in mid-February. Chef/owner Victor Fellus, who moved to Philadelphia from Israel, makes the thick hummus fresh everyday. It’s served with toppings like chicken shawarma, mushrooms with turmeric, or brisket that’s slow-cooked for 18 hours.

“It’s very tender,” Anthony said, “And carries the flavor of the beef.” It’s served with bright sides like pickles and ‘Zhug,’ a spicy Yemen sauce made with dried jalapeño and coriander. “Taste that,” he said, passing me the small cup of ‘Zhug.’ I dipped in my pinky. “Is it spicy?” he asked, as he emptied the container over his bowl.

We were interrupted as a lanky high school kid walking by noticed Lulu. “Dude!” He looped back, away from his clique. “Yo,” he stopped, looking from Lulu to Anthony in disbelief. “Can I touch it?”

“No, but you can come closer and appreciated it’s beauty,” Anthony said, swiping a piece of brisket through the hummus. “She has kissed people and she has bitten people,” he said – he’s never quite sure which way it’ll go.

The Harlequin Macaw was locked to the chair with a tiny chain clipped to her left talon. As the boy walked back to join his friends, she let out high squawk. A few seconds later, the same squawk sounded from Anthony’s phone on the table.

“Anthony’s skincare lounge can I help you?”

“Tomorrow? What time? I’m pretty booked,”

“12:30? I’ll need to check the books – can I call you back at this number?”

Anthony owns a skin care lounge in the Jason Matthew Salon a few blocks east on Chestnut street. It had been a busy morning – before lunch, he’d done three facials and a couple of Brazilians. “Just $30 for a Brazilian,” he said. “We won best of Philly.”

The aesthetician opened the business 10 years ago - his smooth, tan skin and dark, impeccable brows are a give-away. But before he went to beauty school, he wanted to be a chef.

“I went to cooking school 20 years ago,” he said. After getting his associate degree at the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill, he worked in French restaurants in Chester County, before he realized a cook’s life wasn’t for him. “It’s a little hectic,” he said. “When there are three or four of you in the kitchen and you’ve got ten things cooking,” he shook his head, “It’s a lot of responsibility!”

He ripped off a piece of pita for Lulu, who clamped it in her beak. These days, he’s content to feed the bird. 

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Nanny's Notes on Nutrition

Hannah rolled a stroller through Washington Square, settling cross-legged on a bench. She brushed her light auburn curls back against the wind and peeled the foil from a yogurt cup.

“It’s kind of a pathetic excuse for lunch,” she says, swirling dark berry jam into the single-serving yogurt container. She had waited until the 11-month-old in the stroller was asleep before she ate. “Maggie loves yogurt,” Hannah said, “I can’t get away with eating it in front of her.”

Hannah managed to enjoy a few spoonfuls before Maggie woke up – and immediately spotted the yogurt. She reached out her tiny pink-sleeved arms and squawked at her nanny, who leaned forward with the spoon. She nudged Maggie’s coat collar under her chin. “You have carrot all over your face from lunch!” Hannah says, wiping the girl’s flushed cheeks with a thumb.

 Hannah takes care of Maggie four days a week and occasionally cooks for the family. “Today I made turkey meatloaf and roasted vegetables for the mom, and creamed spinach and shredded chicken for Maggie,” she says. She makes plant and protein-based meals – generally no grains, gluten, or refined sugar – following the lead of food and health gurus like Micheal Pollan, Chris Kresser, and Lauren Geertsen (Empowered Sustenance). She reads their work in her spare time, studying to become a nutritional therapy practitioner. 

A few of Hannah's health premises:
Food is medicine.
All disease starts in the gut.
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” – Micheal Pollan (In Defense of Food)

Maggie reached for the yogurt  again – Wallaby’s whole milk ‘Purely Unsweetened’ mixed berry. “I like Wallaby because they source from pastured cows,” Hannah says as she fed Maggie another spoonful. Dairy from grass-fed animals is an important first food that helps nurture a baby's gut microbiome, she says.

Half a container of yogurt is not a typical lunch for Hannah. “Normally I’ll have a salad that’s way to big,” she laughs, “Like in a bowl you’d serve to a group of people.” She adds whatever vegetables she has in the fridge to a heap of mixed greens, cooks a couple strips of local bacon - she likes La Divisa Meats in Reading Terminal - and then fries kale in the bacon fat. Recently, she added sacha inshi seeds (high in protein and Omega-3s, and well on their way to ‘superfood’ status) for extra crunch. 

“I have to have every texture,” she says. She tops with avocado oil mayo mixed with apple cider vinegar, and she always salts with “real salt” – anything that’s not iodized (she gets her iodine from kelp flakes instead).

Hannah wasn’t raised eating giant salad for lunch. She grew up on Long Island, cooking with her Jewish family and eating the “Standard American Diet.” By the time she was in her 20s, she ate more consciously, realizing that healthy food improved her mood and energy level. Now, eating well is a priority. “Family members ask me how I can afford to buy grass fed beef and raw milk,” she says. “I don’t have cable, I don’t buy expensive clothes or makeup.”

She’s also not excessively strict about her diet. "You have to have a balance," she says. It was Valentine’s Day, and her boyfriend had surprised her with chocolate and flowers after her yoga class that morning. “He got me these super couture strawberry hibiscus white chocolate truffles,” she says, and pulled out a small box of pink hearts from the stroller pocket. The white chocolate shells encased gooey, rich dulce de leche. She loved them. “If I’m going to have refined sugar and soy lecithin, it better be really good.”

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Christina's Cake Pop

It was 66 degrees around lunchtime yesterday in Rittenhouse Square. Many took advantage of the abrupt flash-forward to spring, leaving Center City offices to walk leisurely and coat-less for the first time in months. Those who’d given up on scoring a bench seat perched on the concrete edge of the square's fountain. It was dry - it’s still February after all - and a toddler rode his scooter back and forth, rustling leaves from the edges.

Sunlight struck a pink can in front of a young woman who sat eating a cake pop. Christina savored the last morsel of her Golden Oreo Truffle on a stick.

“It’s delicious," she says. “Tastes like one of those vanilla Oreos.” It’s covered in dark chocolate and specked with rainbow sprinkles - her dessert following a turkey avocado sandwich with arugula from Cosi. “If you’re going to have something healthy, you gotta balance it out,” she laughed and pushed her hair back from her temple with a delicate forefinger.

Christina walked to Rittenhouse Square from her center city office at Five Below, where she works as a real estate coordinator, scoping out potential new store locations. “I help from before we get the site to when the store opens,” she says. She started working for the company last summer and commutes from her home in South Jersey.

Normally, she packs a lunch to save money – usually brown rice, tuna, or leftovers from dinner the night before. And when she wants to switch it up, she goes out. Mac Mart’s buffalo chicken mac and cheese, Continental’s grilled chicken sandwich, and tacos at Revolution Taco are a few of her favorites.

She'll take her lunch hour at noon and walk around the city, stopping into shops and food stores at random. “I’m a sweets kinda gal,” she says, sipping from her lipstick-stained straw stuck in the top of the Dr. Brown's Black Cherry Soda can. “It’s almost like Dr. Pepper, but probably better."

She couldn’t resist browsing the dessert section at DiBruno Brother's one day, where she found the cake pop made by the Philly-based company Marie Bee. Though she doesn’t want to make it a regular indulgence, “It’s turning out to be,” she says, smiling –  cake on a stick seemed like just the treat for a mid-winter spring day.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Today, Tortas

Warning: If you read this, you’re probably going to want to get your hands on one of South Philly Barbacoa’s tortas. My apologies in advance -- you’ll have to settle for their just-as-stellar tacos on the weekends. The owners stopped making their tortas on the weekdays because they wanted more time for life, outside the restaurant… and we really can’t blame them for that.

South Philly Barbacoa was listed as one of Bon Appétit’s top 10 new restaurants this summer. The tiny taco and torta spot is busier these days – it was especially bustling the week after Bon Appétit published their list, when I met a few friends there for lunch.

I took the opportunity to talk lunch with James, a teacher at Philadelphia Electrical and Technical Charter School (and also a friend of a friend). During his last week of summer vacation, he made his first trip to South Philly Barbacoa.

The feeling of the place is somewhere between a home kitchen and a restaurant. Paper napkins are stuffed in dried gourds that sit next to flower bouquets on each table. There’s an old-school coca cola drink cooler stocked with lemonade, strawberry lemonade, and free bottles of water. We noticed a lone copy of the Bon Appétit summer issue (with their #6 listing) stashed behind the cooler, clearly an afterthought.

From his seat near the window, James had a view of co-owner Cristina Martinez slicing bread for tortas and stirring big pots of simmering beans and albóndigas (Mexican meatballs, typically made with beef or pork).

Martinez’s husband and co-owner Ben Miller came over to our table to tell us the day’s menu. He ran through a list of tortas (their former weekday-only sandwiches): potato chorizo, chicken with mole poblano, albóndigas with salsa verde, and double-cream queso fresco with avocado and refried beans. James ordered the potato chorizo torta and a watermelon agua fresca.

He says his typical lunch is pretty basic during the school year. If he packs a lunch, it’s a sandwich with lunchmeat, cheese, and mayo. No lettuce, no tomato.  “I mean like the basic,” he says. Sometimes he pops next door to grab a sandwich at CVS, or gets something from a nearby food truck. He never eats in the cafeteria. “From what I’ve heard from the kids, it’s not the best,” he says. (I bet you’re not surprised… isn’t it tragic that bad school lunch food is so normal?)

James is happy to have fourth period lunch this year, which means he’ll eat at 11:15 (unless he has to grade papers or talk with students during lunchtime, in which case he’ll wait until dismissal at 2:12). “Some of my coworkers eat lunch at 10:30am,” he says. Those teachers – and students – are stuck in the cafeteria basically just after breakfast and left with a long stretch to last until school is over.

But at Barbacoa, James was able to enjoy his torta right in the middle of the day, without any academic distractions. Soft potatoes smothered in the spicy juices of the chorizo, topped with tomato and avocado and smashed into the fresh torta bread Cristina used to make each week. (I only know this because I tried a bite. When I asked James what was in it, he said, “I have no idea, I just ate it.” He was hungry and it was just too good to slow down.)

Next week he’ll be back in the classroom, teaching ninth-grade English. He says he’s strict with the kids at first, which is hard to imagine if you’ve met the enthusiastic, quick-to-smile guy outside of school. Like in a Mexican restaurant, for example, where he sipped bright pink watermelon juice with and bobbed his head to the latin music. “I gotta get this Pandora station,” he said as we stood up to leave. “I’ve been jammin’ out this whole time!”

Just give him some time, ninth graders; he’ll lighten up as the year goes on.