When I was an overachiever academic, living in Narberth, a suburb of Philadelphia, making strides for tenure or promotion and raising two teenage daughters, I would sometimes feel overwhelmed. It was as if there was no time for anything else but work. Peter’s solution to turn my frown upside down, was quick in coming: “Let’s go to the Italian Market.”
The Italian Market is one of the oldest outdoor markets in the country. It’s located in South Philly; it extends for blocks, full of curbside vegetable stands, cheese shops, butchers, fish stores, bakeries, you name it. Its history goes back to the late 1800s and early 1900s when the Italian immigrant population in the city reached 150.000. Other immigrant groups, like Mexicans and Asians have been incorporated to the neighborhood and now it’s just as common to find mole from Puebla as Korean barbecue or Vietnamese Pho. One can hear several foreign languages being spoken along with the characteristic Philadelphian “hey, yo” or “youse guys.” No one notices my accent there, what is there not to love?
In addition to the expected foreign delicacies, like homemade pasta and sweet cannoli, one can find the unexpected. There are some dime stores full of cleaning products and seasonal paraphernalia next to the sophisticated Fante’s, with its wide selection of Italian espresso makers. Lately some new fancy restaurants have appeared –Bibou comes to mind–, although the oldies like Dante & Luigis, are still hanging on. Anthony’s and other trendy coffee shops serve gelato in competition with Rita’s old-fashioned water-ice. In the winter the merchants use barrels of fire to keep the customers warm.
One of my favorite places is the spice shop. I can smell it before I cross the corner, I enter quickly and suddenly, I’m in Spain shopping with my mother at the Ibiza Market. The aroma is exactly the same as I remember it, maybe it’s the mixture of saffron and cinnamon with anise seeds and vanilla. I can find dry salt cod around the holidays at Anastasi’s to make my dad’s favorite soup. Never mind that Italians call it baccala, it has the same strong odor and I look for the piece with the roundest flesh, just as he taught me. Depending on the season, I buy black figs, broad green beans or chirimoyas. I haven’t figured out the English terminology for this fruit, but I just point to them. I read in Google that they help with depression, stress and melancholy, no wonder I crave them.
Nothing rivals with Di Bruno’s with its selection of cheeses, charcuteries and olive oils. I remember that when we arrived to this country my parents had to drive to Chicago from Lafayette, the small midwestern town where we lived, to find olive oil. My mother used to say: “What kind of country is this without olive oil?” She would love it now that it’s ubiquitous.
So many things remind me of Spain at the Italian Market, it isn’t just the food. There are the beautiful churches of Saint Paul and Saint Mary Magdalen de Pazzi, founded in 1852 to accommodate the Italian immigrants in what had been an Irish archdiocese. Next door to the church was a museum for Mario Lanza, one of my mother’s favorite singers of old romantic arias. The building has been demolished now, making space for more townhouses, proof of the gentrification of the neighborhood.
Obviously, the Italian Market is not paradise. On one of my last visits there I saw that the huge mural of Frank Rizzo’s, Philadelphia’s racist mayor (1972-1980), had been viciously defaced one more time. Finally, the mural was painted over in 2020 just as his statue was removed from the Municipal Services Building downtown.
From my condo in Center city, I can walk to the Italian Market now, but I usually drive even though one can get into hot parking wars in South Philadelphia. The neighbors often stake the parking spots in front of their homes with lawn chairs or safety cones, leaving very little room for interlopers. I’ll have to stop by the altar of Santa Rita de Cascia and pray for good parking karma.