Thursday, 15 August 2013

Where to Eat in the City of Brotherly Love

It is not really possible to write an exhaustive post on the cuisine of Philadelphia; it's a big city, and we were only there for a couple of days. However, I can offer some advice on worthy cuisine in and around the Penn's Landing area where Sasha and I were based. My suggestions will be particularly helpful for people looking for Italian fare, since that is the genre of food we had for both of our evening meals.

The first restaurant we visited was completely un-researched; it just happened to be a place that we wandered past while looking for a late-night meal on our first night in town. There are usually only two possible outcomes of finding an establishment under those conditions: either you wake up the next morning really regretting your sense of adventure (also known as lack of discrimination), or you luck into a fantastic culinary treat. Happily, Sasha and I experienced the latter.

Our serendipitous find was La Locanda Del Ghiottone, a family-owned restaurant serving genuine Italian food. I can verify the validity of both of these facts because the owners were sitting out on the sidewalk at a table near Sasha's and mine; in fact, they were the ones who got us settled after we peeked at the menu in the window and decided that we would give the place a try.

La Locanda does not serve the sort of Italian food that you find at, say, Sbarro or The Olive Garden. Instead, it has the type of fare that is dished up in the homes of actual Italian people or, in this case, the homes of Italian immigrants and their descendants. It places an emphasis on fresh vegetables, light but satisfying sauces, and flavorful pasta cooked al dente. Can you tell already that I enjoyed my meal?

We started off by sharing a house salad, which consisted of a bed of mixed greens, fresh tomatoes, preserved peppers, and olives. Being the picky eaters that we are, Sasha and I both extracted all the onions and peppers and left them in a little refuse pile at the side of the plate. Otherwise, we practically licked the dish clean.

Our starter: a salad with tomatoes, peppers, olives, and little mozzarella balls

Sasha and I both ordered main courses (well, actually they were primi) from the specials menu. Sasha got spaghetti with a seafood sauce, while I had ravioli with sausage and tomato sauce:

Sasha's spaghetti

My ravioli
These were both excellent selections that had perfect portion sizes. Although everything tasted delicious, the food was also comforting and "homey," which made us feel as though we guests at a friend's house rather than patrons at a restaurant. That kind of experience (which is also facilitated by the overall atmosphere of the restaurant, and how your waiter treats you) is, in my opinion, the most enjoyable outcome possible when you go out to eat.

The dessert menu was incredibly tempting, but I was quite full. Sasha, however, made room for a crepe, which was stuffed with fruit and bathed in chocolate. I had a little bite, and I can confirm that it tasted as good as it looked. I have a real weakness for crepes (though I have only ever eaten them while traveling--e.g., at Montmartre and the Canterbury Cathedral), so it was hard for me to refrain from stealing the entire portion.

Freshly made crepe with fruit and chocolate sauce

After we got home for the evening,  I did a bit of research in order to locate a restaurant where Sasha and I could have breakfast the following morning. Although our hotel was by the river, we were planning to make our way northwestward in order to visit the Eastern State Penitentiary. This meant that there were quite a few restaurants that would be conveniently located near our origin, our destination, or our route of travel between the two.

Ultimately, I settled on Cafe Lift, a highly-reviewed establishment that serves brunch all day. It is located only a few blocks from the Penitentiary, so we were able to get a taxi to the restaurant and then do the rest of our commuting on foot. There are only two real drawbacks of Cafe Lift. First, they only accept cash, which I find to be terribly annoying since I never have any on me. However, there is an ATM in the lobby, so this is a situation that can be easily rectified. More problematic is the second issue, which is that Cafe Lift is extremely popular, but also relatively small. When we arrived at 10:30ish, every table was full--as were both the indoor and outdoor waiting areas. Happily, the maitre d' predicted that we could probably get a table within 30 minutes; even more happily, we were given cups of tea to drink while we waited.

Depending on your view of the world, there is another property of Cafe Lift that you might consider a third drawback: the fact that it is extremely trendy in a young, hipstery sort of way. As a group, hipsters tend to annoy me, but in my quest to be a nicer person, I am trying to think of them as "interesting" rather than "obnoxious." This is not entirely inaccurate, because they truly are interesting, and Sasha and I easily amused ourselves with lots of people-watching.

When we were finally seated, I had a very hard time making up my mind about what to eat. On the one hand, I wanted pancakes and fruit, but on the other hand, I wanted something savory and a bit more wholesome. I ultimately went for the latter, while Sasha chose the former.

My brunch: mushroom frittata with gorgonzola cheese, potatoes, and toast. I also had a side of bacon, because one cannot waste the opportunity to eat fantastic bacon while in the US.
Sasha's breakfast: buttermilk pancakes with fresh fruit. Cafe Lift also serves lemon ricotta pancakes, which would have been my choice.

Sasha was able to clean his plate, but my portion was a bit overwhelming and I had to leave some behind. We both felt so sated that, despite walking around for the rest of the afternoon, neither of us felt the need to have any sort of lunch or major snack prior to our late evening dinner. In other words, if you need a filling breakfast/brunch, Cafe Lift is the place to go.

The final stop on our culinary tour of east-central Philly is the one restaurant that I had researched before actually arriving in town: Ristorante Panorama. It is located in the Penn's View Hotel, which is just a couple of blocks down from where Sasha and I were staying. I chose the restaurant not just because of its convenient location, but also because it is featured on several different "best in Philadelphia" lists, and because Sasha loves Italian food (at the time I made our reservation, I didn't know we'd end up eating Italian food the night before...).

I was a bit surprised by the restaurant layout when we arrived because it looked quite different from the photos I'd seen on the website. I think my confusion arose from the fact that I was looking at images of the large dining room where they host more formal events, whereas Sasha and I were seated in the "Il Bar" section. Our reservations turned out to be completely unnecessary; only three other tables were occupied.

The menu was full of enticing things, and each of our dishes was delicious, but I think I actually enjoyed our meal at La Locanda more. Everything at Panorama indicated that the restaurant was trying very hard to be good--the waiters were extremely serious, the food options were sophisticated, the portions were moderate and artfully arranged, and the quiet, dimly lit dining area had very elegant decor. It was, without doubt, an upscale, high-quality place. La Locanda, on the other hand, was boisterous, casual, and relaxed--a bit rough around the edges, but with food that was every bit as good as what we had at Panorama. Both places had their merits, but there is just something appealing about a place that achieves without seeming to try too hard, and where you can hang out and be yourself without really needing to worry about etiquette. Still, it is nice that both sorts of places exist in the world, because sometimes you do want to dress up and act like an adult.

But enough of the social commentary. The real question is, what did we eat? As per usual, Sasha skipped the first course so that he could save room for dessert. I, on the other hand, ordered the smoked salmon salad with goat cheese. You can't tell from the picture below, but the rocket/arugula was dressed in some sort of light, citrus-y vinaigrette:

Smoked salmon salad

When I was younger, I used to think that lox was disgusting; I never imagined I'd grow up to love it. That is exactly why my mom used to make me take at least two bites of every type of food I was served: You just never know what you might find appealing.

Amazingly, Sasha decided to part from tradition and get a non-pasta dish. Instead, he ordered the maiale e rabe, which was a pork tenderloin served under veggies and shoestring potatoes, with a provolone cheese sauce. least, I'm pretty sure that's what this is. I forgot to photograph the menu, so I'm working off the one the restaurant has posted on its website. I do know for sure that the meat is pork, and that those are potatoes on top!

I ordered the tagliatelle con funghi e granchio, otherwise known as tagliatelle with mushrooms, topped with lump crabmeat. I loved all the flavors of this dish, though I thought that it was a tad dry.

Tagliatelle with mushrooms and crab

On a side note, it is possible that this may end up being the last crab I ever eat. That is because there is new evidence suggesting that shellfish are capable of feeling pain, meaning that they suffer during traditional methods of preparation (i.e., being boiled alive). As much as I love crab, I am not sure that I can bear to eat it knowing that some poor animal experienced a fate that I would not inflict on my worst enemies. I love science, but it can really take the joy out of life sometimes.

Sasha ended the evening with tortine di mele, which were little apple crisps with maple cream and vanilla gelato. I tell you, Italians really know how to do dessert right.

A trio of mini apple crisps
Of all fruity desserts, those involving apples are my favorite (followed by those involving lemons). I had a little nibble one of these, but otherwise left them all to Sasha. I did, however, partake in a glass of port.

Maybe one day, if I train hard enough, I'll be able to finish a whole glass of port without becoming tipsy.

Thus concluded our exploration of Philly fare--unless you count the continental breakfast we had the next morning at our hotel, which I most definitely do not. I was very impressed with all of our meals, especially considering that I didn't really invest that much time in planning. My only real regret was that we didn't visit my all-time favorite Philly establishment: Marrakesh. I was tempted to go, but Sasha isn't a big fan of Moroccan food. I also feel guilty that I didn't take Sasha to a place where he could sample a Philly cheese steak, which is practically a mandatory activity on your first visit to Philadelphia. There are probably at least a hundred other unique dishes and/or restaurants that we should have sampled during our trip, so obviously Philly is a place we'll need to return to at some point in the future.

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