On the Side | Savory vindication for Phila. as food town

Posted: June 28, 2007

A little past noon a week ago yesterday, Dana Cowin, the birdlike editor of Food & Wine magazine, balanced herself uncertainly atop a chair at Osteria, the northern Italian darling on North Broad.

She had some words to eat, she announced: Philadelphia was really not the "boring" food town she'd once thought and, in fact, had once proclaimed at a food conference.

She'd actually come down and visited from New York since then. Actually, had a few cocktails, checked out Capogiro's artisan gelato (pictured here), eaten in a few dining rooms - the new James, Xochitl, Amada (where she scarfed the grilled shrimp "head on!"), Marigold Kitchen, and Ansill.

The mea culpa was no surprise to the assembled guests at Osteria, a familiar stew of chefs and journalists. They'd been herded to the reception by Food & Wine, and by Philadelphia Magazine, which had challenged Cowin's original notion and was indulging in a little cross-marketing now that her retraction had been published in this month's issue: "There are now more places I want to try in Philadelphia than New York," Cowin had expansively concluded.

So it was a feel-good event all around, the latest rediscovery of the Next Great City, a hoary safari that can trace its recent roots to 2004 with Saveur's anointing of Philadelphia as "The Most Underrated American Food Town."

Sometimes (though apparently not in Cowin's first forays), the adventurers drop by the city's crown jewel, the Reading Terminal Market, a century-old fresh market still pulsing (with a cheese stand that gives Di Bruno Bros. a run for its money, and better Italian pulled pork than you'll find in most of South Philly) at the very center of the city.

A day or two after the Osteria event, its Amish farmers were selling off the last of their crops of asparagus, strawberries and sweet peas; raspberries, blueberries and white peaches are on the way.

In Chinatown, ropes of elastic dough were being slapped on a counter and drawn by hand into slender soup noodles. At 11th and Mount Vernon, a few blocks east of Osteria, Nigerian cab drivers were mopping up their chicken stew with gummy pinches of foo foo, made from pounded yam. And on Ninth Street, they were selling game sausage, cilantro-laced Vietnamese hoagies, and, around the corner, big cups of pineapple water ice.

You could eat on the deck of a clipper ship in the Delaware. Or the Standard Tap's roof garden (where the draft beer is all local). Or the signless Eagle Tavern up the hill in Manayunk, where, for some reason, the Asian duck soup is just outstanding.

Or take your pick of taquerias (from 13th and Ellsworth to near the fountain on East Passyunk). Or a fried-fish joint called Kurth's in North Philadelphia. Or, after a 15-month hiatus, the Formica counter at the vintage Silk City Diner, Fifth and Spring Garden, where they're making salmon croquettes from the scraps of wild sockeye.

Or almost any corner in Northern Liberties, if you can snag a sidewalk table (or invite yourself to an impromptu barbecue on Second Street).

It might not be turf that Food & Wine gets around to treading. (The July cover features its Best New Chefs roundup, and tips on how to outsmart an overpriced wine list. Tip No. 5: "Bring your own wine.")

But it is Philadelphia's food scene raw and unedited, and, whatever else you say about it, one thing that it isn't - and hasn't been for years - is boring.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.

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