It was raining buckets when SAVEUR senior editor Gabriella Gershenson and I rolled into Philadelphia for a whirlwind 36-hour, 8-restaurant, million-calorie tour of the East Coast's most exciting emerging food town. This was a good thing: It meant that there was hardly a wait at all at Federal Donuts, the blazingly popular doughnut-and-fried-chicken emporium tucked away on a Pennsport side street where out-the-door lines and midafternoon sellouts are de rigueur. The sun came out for the rest of our trip, and so we criscrossed the city on foot, making our way from farmers' markets filled with jewel-like Amish produce to hushed, leafy terrace restaurants to the riotous 9th Street Italian Market, where century-old, family-run pork stores vie for space with Vietnamese produce stands and Mexican groceries. Through it all there was a continuous thread of something ineffably Philly: bright and optimistic, entirely unpretentious and yet exacting in quality. When it comes to eating, this city is operating miles beyond the cheesesteak.
1. The Paesano Sandwich at Paesano's
Practically every item on the chalkboard menu at Paesano's, chef Peter McAndrews' no-punches-pulled sandwich shop, reads like a call to heaven for the true hoagie lover. But of all the savory gutbusters on offer, the most savory, most busting-of-gut is his shop's namesake Paesano: a long Italian roll topped with beef brisket, roasted tomatoes, gooey provolone, vinegary pepperoncini, spicy horseradish mayo, and a fried egg for good measure. It's a high-low monster of a meal that's brilliant on its own, and even better eaten leaning against the formica counter, alternating bites with sips from a one-dollar cup of the perfectly old-school RC Cola Paesano's runs on tap.
2. APPOLLONIA DOUGHNUT AT FEDERAL DONUTS
Chef Michael Solomonov's latest venture offers an embarrassment of deep-fried riches: Cake doughnuts and fried chicken are the specialties of the house, and both are incredibly good. One fritter that stood out among the rest, however, was the Appollonia doughnut. Part of the "Hot Fresh" menu (meaning the doughnut is served hot out of the fryer, freshly rolled in seasoned sugar), the Appollonia is flavored with baharat, the Turkish spice blend that includes black pepper, cumin, and cinnamon, and rolled in sugar enriched with a mixture of orange blossoms, cocoa, and clove, from spice guru Lior Lev Sercarz. The result is a highly fragrant doughnut, with cocoa-driven depths of flavor and unexpected savory notes, that's hauntingly delicious. —Gabriella Gershenson
1219 South 2nd St.
3. Housemade Burrata at Rittenhouse Tavern
There's a lot of good dairy to be had in Philly: the city's markets and restaurant menus are full to overflowing with the rich product of Amish-country cows, pressed into service as cream, yogurt, milk, or cheese. But the burrata on offer at Rittenhouse Tavern, a relatively young restaurant picturesquely situated in the back half of the historic Wetherill Mansion off tony Rittenhouse Square, is a pinnacle of lactic achievement. Each alabaster sphere is pulled to order, served within minutes of its making: chewy mozzarella exteriors giving way to centers filled with sweet, airy panna so creamy it verges on the obscene. A grind of pepper and a few slivers of seasonal fruit are a simple, perfect garnish.
251 South 18th St.
Philadelphia Art Alliance
4. J&E HOMEMADE DRINKS ROOT BEER
Visiting a summer farmers market in Philadelphia is an experience in itself: exuberant produce, gorgeous eggs and baked goods, fresh meat from west of town and fish from just east. But it's hot work, marveling over the goods on offer with a camera slung around your neck, and a frosty swig of fresh, yeasty, naturally-carbonated root beer does a body good. A two-dollar, twelve-ounce bottle from Quarryville's J&E Homemade is fizzily herbaceous, not too sweet, and—in the grand tradition of natural root beers—vaguely medicinal.
J&E Homemade Drinks
Hilltop Produce Stand
Rittenhouse Square Farmers Market
Tuesdays and Saturdays
5. THAI COCONUT GELATO AT CAPOGIRO GELATO ARTISANS
This is one of the best gelatos you can eat, period. Though Capogiro tempts with dozens of flavors, many seasonal, all made fresh each morning from local ingredients ("if the ingredient grows near Philadelphia," clarifies co-owner Stephanie Reitano), the Thai coconut gelato has the benefit of being one of a few varieties available all year long. It also happens to be stupendously creamy, made from Thai coconut milk and the butterfat-rich milk of pastured Ayrshire cattle, and is so true to its flavor as to be uncanny. In other words, this is one incomparable scoop. —GG
Capogiro Gelato Artisans
6. Tilapia Burrito at Cucina Zapata
It sounds like a cross between a stoner fantasy and a publicity stunt: a Thai-Mexican fusion food truck serving Cap'n Crunch fish tacos. But this foil-wrapped concoction, served up by Robert Zapata from his graffiti-covered mobile kitchen, really works. The cereal, crushed and used as breading for the tilapia, has a honeyed sweetness that lends a bright note to the pileup of flavors, and it keeps its namesake crunch even under a mountain of red cabbage, cilantro-laced pico de gallo, and avocado, all of it dressed in a spicy peanut sauce. "Remember when you were like, Damn, I could go for some Thai food in a taco," the truck asks in its Twitter bio, and then preempts your polite response: "Well, here it is. You're welcome." Seriously, thank you.
Pictured above: Paesano's; J&E root beer; Capogiro Gelato; Rittenhouse Tavern (image courtesy of Rittenhouse Tavern); Federal Donuts