Philadelphia’s Italian American community is the second-largest in the United States.
Named after its view of the Center City skyline, Bella Vista, Italian for “Beautiful View,” is one of Philadelphia’s oldest and authentic Italian neighborhoods. Protestant Italian immigrants from Sicily, known as Waldensians who were seeking freedom from religious persecution, settled the area originally during the colonial era. During that time, a distinct Italian community emerged in Bella Vista, but the number of Italian Philadelphians remained relatively low until the Great Migration at the end of the 19th century.
In the late 1880s, a new wave of Italian immigrants in search of employment, poured into the Bella Vista neighborhood. By 1970, the Italian immigrant population had grown to about 600,000 and was largely concentrated in South Philadelphia. Bella Vista has remained a hub of Italian life and culture since its beginning and is now known as Philadelphia’s “Little Italy.”
Bella Vista is home to many Italian-American treasures, such as the city’s first Italian American bathhouse, the Fante-Leone Pool, built in 1905 and the Philadelphia Ninth Street Italian Market, claimed to be the oldest open-air market still in operation in the country. More than 100 years old, the Italian Market was originally a business association of local vendors who banded together to compete with larger stores that were moving into the area.
Today, the market houses an assortment of shops, bakeries and restaurants and, though it has maintained a predominantly Italian influence, the market has begun to encompass other immigrant cultures. The “outdoor” market features colorful metal awnings that cover the sidewalks where vendors of fruit, vegetables, fish and housewares conduct business year round. Ground floor shops in traditional Philadelphia row houses line the street. Owners would have originally lived above their shops and many still do.
Another major landmark in Bella Vista was the Palumbo nightclub and restaurant. Originally built by the Antonio Palumbo family in 1884 as a boarding house for immigrant workers, it was expanded by Frank Palumbo, Antonio’s grandson, into a well-known entertainment complex for local residents. At the peak of its popularity, the club attracted residents and politicians from all over the city and featured musical guests like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. The club no longer exists, having been destroyed by a series of fires in the 1990s.
The market has also played a role in the culture of Philadelphia and is often included in cultural depictions of the city. For example, the Italian Market was featured in the movie, Rocky. The television series, Hack, also filmed several episodes at the Italian Market. The Italian Market was also used in a season 5 episode of the television show, “Its Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” South Philadelphia has produced many well-known Italian American popular singers and musicians, including Frankie Avalon, Jim Croce, Joey DeFrancesco, Buddy DeFranco, Fred Diodati (lead singer of The Four Aces), Fabian, Buddy Greco, Mario Lanza, Al Martino, Bobby Rydell, Charlie Ventura and Joe Venuti. If you visit South Philadelphia in May, you can celebrate with the locals at the Annual Italian Market festival and the Procession of the Saints.
Culinary Tour of South Philly
While the neighborhood is home to several Italian- American attractions, it also has a variety of local restaurants and grills. It was the Genoese and Ligurian blue-collar workers and restaurateurs who came in the 19th century and created an Italian American cooking legacy that includes cheese steaks, veal parmesan dinners, Italian ices, hoagies and tomato pies.
As you read, you will see why, Philadelphia is often called the “Sandwich City”.
Pat Oliveri invented the Philly Cheese Steak in 1930, when he switched from hotdogs to steak sandwiches after he was caught making himself one for lunch and his cabbie customers wanted the same. Just down the street is Geno’s Steaks. This relative newcomer burst on the scene in 1966 and, ever since, has been engaged in a battle with Pat’s for the best cheese steak sandwich. There are fierce loyalties on both sides and with locations so close together, you can decide.
The steak, debatably sliced or chopped, is smothered in melted cheese and served on a chewy, long roll. With locals and tourists alike lining up for the hearty sandwich, you need to do your homework and know how to order. First, you choose the type of cheese you’d like, which can be “prove” for provolone, American or “whiz” as in the processed, Cheese Whiz. If you want onions say “wit,” no onions is “wit out.” Then dig in with plenty of napkins.
Pizza Philly Style
Philadelphia Tomato Pie is stretched and baked into sheet pans. The thick, bready crust is as thick as a Sicilian pizza—about 1 inch tall. The tomatoes for this sauce are cooked down with lots of seasoning into a thick, heavy, sweet sauce. No toppings and no cheese, save for a scant shake of Romano or Parmesan cheese. For many who grew up in the area, this simple bakery style pie says “Philly” more than any other style of pizza.
Walk off your lunch back at the market exploring the many Italian specialty stores, then head west on Christian street two blocks and pick up a box of fresh cannoli at Isgro Paticceria (1009 Christian Street) established in 1904. Wrap up the day at the country’s second oldest Italian restaurant and the oldest family run restaurant in the country, Ralph’s Italian Restaurant (760 S. 9th St). Established in 1900 by Neapolitan immigrants, Francesco and Catherine Dispigno, Ralph’s has been a favorite of many Italian Americans over the years, including Frank Sinatra, as well as non-Italians like President Franklin Roosevelt.
Make Some Philly Inspired Sandwiches At Home
Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich
Makes 1 sandwich.
- 1/4 of a green bell pepper
- 1/8 of a medium yellow onion
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 4-5 oz leftover steak
- 1/3 cup shredded Provolone cheese
- 1 small Italian baguette or hoagie roll (6-7 inches long)
Slice pepper into 1/4″ wide by 3″ long julienne strips. Cut the onion into 1/4″ by 3″ julienne pieces. Place 1 tablespoon of oil in a saute pan and heat on high heat. Once hot, cook the pepper and onions just until soft, about 1 1/2 minutes. Remove from the pan and keep warm.
Place the saute pan back on the stove, set on high heat and add 1 tablespoon of oil. Slice the cold leftover steak very thin, then sear very quickly in the pan on each side for 30 seconds. Stack the steak in the pan, then top with the shredded cheese. Cover the pan for about 45 seconds to melt the cheese.
Slice the baguette in half horizontally. Place on a plate, then stack the meat with the melted cheese on top of the bottom piece of baguette. Add peppers and onions on top.
Pulled Pork Italiano
DiNic’s, in Philadelphia, serves this sandwich of wine-and herb-braised pulled pork, sharp provolone and roasted long hot peppers.
- 1 tablespoon ground fennel seeds
- 3 tablespoons dried parsley
- 1½ tablespoon dried thyme
- 3½ teaspoons crushed red chile flakes
- 1- 6 lb pork shoulder, butterflied
- 3 sprigs rosemary, stemmed and finely chopped
- 1 head garlic, finely chopped
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- 4 cups beef stock
- 1/2 cup red wine
- 1 medium yellow onion, thinly sliced
- 1 bay leaf
- 1/2 cup canned crushed tomatoes
- 2 lb broccoli rabe
- 1/4 cup canola oil
- 32 slices sharp provolone
- 8-12″ crusty Italian rolls, split
- 24 roasted long hot peppers
Heat oven to 450°F. Combine fennel, parsley , thyme,and 3 teaspoons chili flakes in a small bowl; set aside.
Open pork shoulder on a work surface and spread with half of herb mixture, rosemary , 1/4 of the chopped garlic, salt and pepper. Roll up the shoulder, tie with kitchen twine at 1″ intervals to secure and season out-side with remaining herb mixture, salt and pepper.
Transfer to a roasting pan and roast until browned, about 40 minutes. Remove pan from oven and heat broiler. Add remaining garlic to pan, along with stock, wine, onion and bay leaf; pour tomatoes over top and sides of pork shoulder. Broil until tomatoes are caramelized, about 20 minutes.
Reduce oven temperature to 325°F. Cover pork with parchment paper and, then, cover the roasting pan with aluminum foil. Cook until the internal temperature of pork reaches 165°, about 2 hours. Set aside to cool.
Transfer pork to cutting board and remove bay leaf from pan. Transfer juices to a blender and purée; transfer to a 4-qt. saucepan and keep warm. Pull pork apart into large pieces and add to pan juices.
Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add broccoli rabe. Cook, stirring, until just tender, 2–3 minutes. Drain and dry thoroughly with paper towels. Heat oil in a 12″ skillet. Working in batches if necessary , add remaining chili flakes and broccoli rabe and cook, stirring, until crisp and warmed through, about 4 minutes. Set aside.
Place 4 slices provolone on bottom half of each roll, and top with pork. Add broccoli rabe and peppers.
Real Italian Hoagie
The Hoagie sandwich was originally created in Philadelphia. There are a number of different versions to how the Hoagie got its name, but no matter what version is right, all agree that it started in Philadelphia.
The most widely accepted story centers on an area of Philadelphia known as Hog Island, which was home to a shipyard during World War I (1914-1918). The Italian immigrants working there would bring giant sandwiches made with cold cuts, spices, oil, lettuce, tomatoes, onions and peppers for their lunches. These workers were nicknamed “hoggies.” Over the years, the name was attached to the sandwiches, but under a different spelling.
Another version: The word Hoagie came from the sandwiches that used to get eaten by workers over on a place that was nicknamed “hog island”. The workers there would bring crusty rolls with Italian meats and some olive oil and these sandwiches became known as “hoggies”, which eventually morphed into hoagie. By the way – It has to be a fresh, crusty Italian long roll!
- 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
- 1 tablespoon dried oregano
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 4 hoagie rolls
- 1/4 lb prosciutto di Parma, thinly sliced
- 1/4 lb capicola, thinly sliced
- 1/4 lb genoa salami or 1/4 lb sopressata salami, thinly sliced
- 1/4 lb provolone cheese
- 1 large tomato, thinly sliced
- 1 small onion, thinly sliced
- 1/8 cup shredded lettuce
Slice the rolls, but not all the way through.
Place the vinegar and oregano in a small bowl. Slowly whisk in the oil until emulsified.
Remove some of the bread from the center of each half of roll.
Drizzle a little of the olive oil mixture on the bread.
Place first the meats, then the cheese in layers.
Top with the tomatoes, onions and the lettuce. Drizzle with more of the dressing, as desired.
Chicken or Veal Cutlet Hoagies
The luncheonette, Shank’s & Evelyn’s, which has become an Italian Market staple over the past 48 years, is known far and wide for their breakfast, lunch and most notably their sandwiches. In recent years, The sandwich Shank’s is most famous for, and has solidified their name in publications across the nation, is the Chicken Cutlet Italiano with greens.
Makes 4 sandwiches
- 4 (4-6 ounces) chicken or veal cutlets (about ½-inch thickness)
- 2 large eggs
- 2 tablespoons milk
- 1/8 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2/3 cups plain bread crumbs
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 medium bunch broccoli rabe, stems removed
- 1 tablespoon olive oil
- 2 small garlic cloves, thinly sliced
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 4 hoagie rolls or ciabatta rolls
- 4 slices sharp provolone cheese
In a wide, shallow bowl whisk eggs, milk, crushed red pepper and salt.
Place flour in a separate wide, shallow bowl. Do the same with the breadcrumbs.
In a large skillet over medium heat, add 3 tablespoons olive oil.
Dip one chicken cutlet at a time in the flour, then in the egg mixture, allowing excess to drip into the bowl. Dredge in the bread crumbs, ensuring that the entire cutlet is evenly coated. Add to the skillet and cook 3-4 minutes on each side until golden brown and crisp. Place on a paper-towel lined dish. Repeat with remaining cutlets.
Bring a large saucepan of salted water to a boil. Boil broccoli rabe for 2 minutes; drain and plunge into a bowl of ice water. “Shocking” the rabe will maintain its vivid green color.
In a large skillet over medium heat, add 1 tablespoon olive oil and garlic. Sauté until garlic starts to turn golden. Add broccoli rabe, crushed red pepper and salt. Saute 1-2 minutes more until just tender.
Place one split roll on a clean work surface. Place chicken cutlet on the bottom half of the roll. Top with 1/4 of the broccoli rabe and 2 slices of cheese. Place under a broiler for 1-2 minutes, or until the cheese melts. Serve immediately.
Philadelphia Tomato Pie
For the Dough
- 3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 1 teaspoon rapid-rise yeast
- 2 1/4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for oiling pan
- 1 cup plus 6 tablespoons water
For the Sauce
- 6 fresh Roma tomatoes
- 1-28 oz can crushed tomatoes
- 1-6 oz can tomato paste
- 4 large cloves garlic, minced
- 1 tablespoon basil
- 1 tablespoon oregano
- 1½ tablespoons Balsamic vinegar
- 2½ tablespoons sugar
Combine flour, salt and yeast in the bowl of a stand mixer, fitted with the dough hook attachment. Whisk to combine. Add olive oil and water. Knead on low speed just until dough comes together, about 3 minutes.
Let dough rest for 10 minutes, then knead once more on low speed for 10 minutes. Dough should pull away from sides of bowl, but stick to bottom.
Remove dough hook, cover top of mixing bowl tightly with plastic wrap, and let rise in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours and up to 24.
Meanwhile, make the sauce. Preheat oven to 365 degrees F. Slice tomatoes in half, season with salt & pepper, drizzle with olive oil and roast in the oven for 35 minutes.
Meanwhile, place the remaining ingredients in a non-aluminum, heavy bottom pan and simmer until thickened.
When roasted tomatoes are done add them into sauce, continue to cook down and mix them in until there are no large chunks.
Two hours before baking, remove dough from the refrigerator. Generously grease the inside of a 13 by 18-inch rimmed baking sheet with olive oil (about 3 tablespoons).
Turn dough out onto lightly floured surface. Form into flat ball and transfer to the oiled baking sheet. Using your hands, coat the ball on all sides with olive oil.
Loosely cover the baking sheet with plastic and let dough rise in a warm spot for 1 hour. The dough should spread out .
Carefully stretch and push the dough into the corners and edges of the pan. Cover loosely and let rise for 1 hour longer.
Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to upper middle position and preheat oven to 450°F. When the dough has risen, gently use your hands to create a risen ridge about 1-inch wide around the edge.
Spread sauce generously over dough, leaving the raised 1-inch edge un-sauced. Bake until edges are light golden brown and crisp, about 20 minutes total, rotating pan once halfway through baking.
Remove from oven and allow to cool at room temperature for at least 15 minutes. Sprinkle with Romano cheese, cut into slices and serve.
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- New York’s “Other Little Italies” (jovinacooksitalian.com)
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