The food scene in South Philly is more than just cheesesteaks

South Philly’s culinary roots are blue-collar, gutsy, and Italian-American. That tradition, mixed with newer arrivals, makes it the city’s best place to eat.
January 22, 2020, 11:30 AM UTC
Kasu-cured Spanish mackerel: a creation of chef Nicholas Elmi at Laurel. Photograph by William Mebane for Fortune
Photograph by William Mebane for Fortune

In M. Night Shyamalan’s Apple TV+ horror series Servant, Dorothy Turner, a Philadelphia newscaster on the precipice of a psychotic break, sloughs off a long day of shooting like a copperhead shedding its skin. “Every time I visit South Philly, I realize how blessed we are,” she sighs in her stately brownstone in Rittenhouse Square, the Philly equivalent of the Upper East Side.

There are plenty of people who treat South Philly like the Tijuana of the Delaware Valley—catch an Eagles game and cheesesteak then get the hell out before your BMW gets clipped—but in reality, Dorothy’s dig is staler than a week-old Wawa pretzel. Her husband, Sean, a chef, should know South Philly is full of blessings, especially when it comes to food.

PHL.02.20.Palizzi-Italian-Social-Club-A
Arancini with ragù and peas, served family style (naturally) at Palizzi Social Club. Mangia!
Photograph by William Mebane for Fortune

In a more authentic script, he might bring up Kalaya, where Nok Suntaranon, a former Thai Airways flight attendant, has hooked the city on her sapphire butterfly pea dumplings and stir-fried cabbage splashed with fish sauce, or Angelo’s Pizzeria, where Danny DiGiampietro, a former bread deliveryman, deals chicken cutlet epiphanies on crusty, house-baked rolls. Sean might mention both restaurants opened last year on the same block of South 9th Street, the area’s spiritual center, and that while they could not be more different in terms of the food they serve, they share an independent, doing-it-my-way, South Philly swagger. But because Sean is busy with the eerie nanny who’s turned a doll into a human infant, this South Philly native will step up.

PHL.02.20.Palizzi-Italian-Social-Club-B
Palizzi Social Club is one of the last member-only Italian social clubs to survive in South Philly.
Photograph by William Mebane for Fortune

I grew up around the corner from Rocky’s house—the shooting location from the 1979 sequel. For the first half of my life, South Philly’s culinary reputation matched that of the fictional boxer: blue-collar, gutsy, Italian American. I’ve spent the second half advocating for the preservation of that culture, as well as celebrating the new arrivals who have remade South Philly into one of the most rich and compelling areas to dine in the city. The cookbooks I cowrote with two South Philly restaurants this year, Dinner at the Club and Laurel, represent each side of this coin.

PHL.02.20.Palizzi-Italian-Social-Club-C
The social club is home to family-style courses, cocktails and good ol’ conversation.
Photograph by William Mebane for Fortune

Both establishments are in the East Passyunk neighborhood, a parcel typified by two- and three-story brick rowhomes, modest Catholic churches that still say Mass in Italian (for the area’s OG immigrants) and Spanish (for the new ones), and South Philly’s historic commercial corridor, East Passyunk Avenue, where you can buy imported scamorza cheese and status succulents in a single shopping trip. Laurel is right on the Avenue, a relaxed salon where Nicholas Elmi expresses his vision of modern Mid-Atlantic cooking in six- and nine-course tastings. His dishes manage to be both cerebral and fun: nutty acorn-flour blini crowned with bowfin caviar and smoked maple; whole fish with hidden ripples of mushroom duxelle; a teepee of malted meringue sheltering yuzu custard. Elmi is a Patriots fan originally from New Hampshire, but Passyunk loves the Top Chef winner just the same. Whether you’re from New England or New Delhi, South Philly has always been a place where outsiders can make a new home.

PHL.02.20.Laurel-B
Laurel’s Thalita Costa holds frozen foie gras tarts with hibiscus, black raspberry and elderberry.
Photograph by William Mebane for Fortune

Joey Baldino, meanwhile, grew up around the corner from Palizzi Social Club, one of the last members-only social clubs to survive the South Philly-to-South Jersey white flight pipeline of the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. A reverse of this exodus in the last 20 years has fueled East Passyunk’s revival and Palizzi’s resurrection. Baldino took over the cozy, century-old hangout at the request of his dying uncle in 2016, changed the charter to welcome people of all backgrounds (not just Italians), and began serving his family recipes: crabs and spaghetti, stromboli, escarole and beans, and more. Palizzi’s rarely released memberships go for a democratic $20 and are so coveted, Baldino had to snuff out an eBay black market last year. 

PHL.02.20.Laurel-C
Chickory glazed Bucks County Duck with caramelized skirret and fermented currants at Laurel.
Photograph by William Mebane for Fortune

Around the corner from Palizzi, a chain-link gate in the middle of the street leads into the concrete courtyard of Mighty Bread Co., Chris DiPiazza’s year-old alleyway bakery. On weekends, the neighborhood pit-mixes patiently wait for their owners to drop crumbs of yeasted jam donuts and dark sourdough toast smothered in mushrooms. The lines also stretch out the door at South Philly Barbacoa a few blocks north, where Cristina Martinez turns Pennsylvania-grown, Mexican heirloom corn into the most hypnotically fragrant tortillas. They cradle cleaver-whacked hunks of slow-cooked lamb that have earned Martinez, an outspoken undocumented person, a James Beard nomination and dedicated episode of Netflix’s Chef’s Table. Meanwhile over in Pennsport, South Philly’s historically Irish American enclave, the Taipa family from Morelos, Mexico, runs the bijou Crème Brûlée Bistro & Café. M. Night, come find me there any cold winter evening. We can discuss my consulting fee over onion soup and pistachio éclairs.

A version of this article appears in the February 2020 issue of Fortune with the headline “Beyond the Cheesesteak.”

More must-read stories from Fortune:

—The mental health benefits of cow cuddling
Cabo’s newest luxury resort favors tranquility over nightlife
—How Ganni used tech-world tricks to grow a cult fashion label to a global brand
High-tech fitness offerings are the newest luxury hotel must-have
—The best travel destinations for every season of 2020
Follow Fortune on Flipboard to stay up-to-date on the latest news and analysis.