Come for the Italian Market Festival, stay for the neighborhood. Bella Vista is filled with great restaurants, bars, markets, cafes and more, so be sure to plan a return trip not long after this weekend's event. (Photos by R. Kennedy for GPTMC)
[This spring, Visit Philly launched a new effort to promote 14 different neighborhoods surrounding Center City Philadelphia. With our new complementary “Philadelphia Neighborhoods” post series, Uwishunu is teaming up with Visit Philly to promote all the awesome dining, shopping, arts, nightlife, events and more within Philly’s many exciting neighborhoods.]
This weekend, the 9th Street Italian Market Festival is set to bring thousands of festival goers from all corners of the city to experience the vibrant dining and eclectic culture of the Bella Vista neighborhood.
A traditionally Italian area that’s now ethnically mixed, Bella Vista spans 6th to 11th streets, and stretches from Lombard Street to Washington Avenue, but its best-known feature is the 9th Street Italian Market, the oldest operational open-air market of its kind in America.
The cultural harmony of the area has created a hugely diverse dining scene — brimming with traditional “red gravy” Italian restaurants alongside hip new American joints and casual Mexican eateries.
Head out to the festival this weekend, then stick around or make a return visit to experience the eclectic dining offered up in our Bella Vista neighborhood guide, below.
To explore more in Bella Vista, and to view these places on a interactive map of Bella Vista, check out the full Bella Vista guide in the new Philadelphia Neighborhoods section on visitphilly.com.
Restaurants and Bars
• Bainbridge Street Barrel House: This handsome seven-days-a-week newcomer credits craft beer with its existence (with 25 brews on tap,180-plus bottled options, plus wine and classic cocktails) and lists smothered fries, pickled veggies, stuffed sandwiches and hearty mains as its staples. The owners of the Barrel House are the guys behind Bella Vista Beer Distributors on South 11th Street.
• Brauhaus Schmitz: Details: The premier German beer bar in Philly, the Brauhaus packs in European soccer fans on the regular, but it’s also a top-notch restaurant, with modern German cooking from chef Jeremy Nolen.
• Cucina Forte: This homey Italian BYOB is best known for chef-owner Maria Forte’s amazing ricotta gnocchi, pillow pasta that Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan referred to as “weightless wonders of the dumpling world.” After those doughy delights, regulars to Cucia Forte recommend any of the day’s specials.
• Dante & Luigi’s: One of the city’s oldest trattorias, Dante & Luigi’s celebrates Italian-American cuisine with homemade lasagna, hearty veal chops and other traditional treats slathered in famous “red gravy” (South Philly-speak for marinara). Also famous here: On Halloween night of 1989, it D&L’s was the site of an attempted hit on local mob figure Nicky Scarfo, Jr – things have quieted down a bit since.
• The Dive: This casual over-21 hangout has a vast beer selection – from cans of Schlitz to local microbrews – rock-filled jukebox, inexpensive pool tables and friendly barkeeps. But it’s The Dive’s exemption from the citywide smoking ban that makes it earn its name.
• Fitzwater Café: Transformed from a vintage gas station, Fitzwater Café is a quaint satellite to the Saloon (see below) and a Bella Vista go-to for breakfast and lunch, and, on Friday and Saturdays, casual Italian dinners. Patrons fill café tables and a bar for airy French toast, crunchy-topped banana muffins, roast pork sandwiches and, at night, homemade pasta.
• Growlers: A spacious “living room for the neighborhood,” Growler’s has tons of great beer on tap and a cracklin’ fireplace to warm up your bones, but not your pint. A pub menu flecked with thoughtful touches keeps many appetites satisfied.
• Hawthorne’s Biercafe: On a wide stretch of 11th Street, Hawthorne’s is half beer boutique, half sandwich shop and has become a popular breakfast-through-dinner spot. A chalkboard menu offers panini, salads, burgers, cheese and meat boards, pierogies – and growlers (of beer) to go.
• Monsu: Another Italian Market BYOB, this corner spot prides itself its Sicilian roots. Monsu’s brunch and dinner menus offer the mild – airy eggplant parmigiana, ricotta-and-zucchini ravioli, osso buco – to the slightly wild – sweet-and-sour tripe.
• Nina’s Trattoria: A long vacant Italian Market storefront gained new life as this under-the-radar, authentically Italian BYOB. Lunch, brunch and dinner menus at Nina’s feature farm-to-table fare, including homemade meatballs, grilled radicchio and asparagus patties.
• Nomad Pizza: Born of a food truck (which was born of an at-home $10,000 wood oven) this simple, upscale pizzeria has a pies-first focus. Aficionados have fallen for Nomad’s airy Neapolitan-style ’za, as preceded by a crisp salad, washed down by a hoppy ale.
John's Water Ice is a summertime staple in Bella Vista. (Photo by R. Kennedy)
• Paesano’s II: The second location of Northern Liberties’ gourmet Italian sandwich shop resides – where else? – in heart of the Italian Market. Bread-swaddled choices at Paesano’s include roasted suckling pig adorned with long hots, sharp provolone and broccoli rabe, or fried lasagna topped with a fried egg (that’s some sandwich). Tip: gluten-free rolls are available, too.
• Paloma: Haute Mexican – mushroom flan, huitlacoche mousse-stuffed duck, poblano-touched corn chowder – is the draw at this refined BYOB. Dinner at Paloma ends with no-kidding desserts – mojito layer cake with a scoop of mango habanero sorbet, anyone?
• Percy Street Barbecue: James Beard-winning chef Michael Solomonov parked his penchant for all-American barbecue at this laid-back South Street joint. Meaty, smoky platters at Percy Street include pork belly, brisket and barbecue chicken, with to-share sides of pimento cheese, skillet cornbread and turkey tails.
• Ralph’s: America’s oldest Italian restaurant – and immensely proud of it – Ralph’s is a two-floor tribute to old-school Italian-American fare and still packs in the crowds, more than a century after opening its doors. Loyal patrons go for the basics – sausage and peppers, mussels red or white – and usually go home with doggie bags.
• Royal Tavern: The neighborhood’s steadfast gastropub serves up truffled popcorn and piled-high nachos, vegan sloppy Joes and meatloaf sandwiches to go with its major beer list. Loud and always busy, the Royal’s a no-brainer for an easy night out.
• Sabrina’s Café: The Sunday morning line of people waiting for tables – and massive, massive plates of food – at this Italian Market attest to its brunch-time popularity. A fancier-than-a-diner spot, Sabrina’s is known for its breakfast-all-day menu of mega omelets, huge pancakes and very big salads.
• Saloon: This polished, splurge-worthy Italian-American stalwart knows its way around a filet mignon, veal chop and lobster. Unlike many of Saloon’s BYOB neighbors, this gentlemanly venue boasts a major wine list and a beautiful bar for sitting and sipping.
• Sam’s Morning Glory: Bella Vista’s original brunch spot calls itself a “finer diner.” And, it’s true: the daytime-only MoGlo turns your average omelet into a delish skillet frittata, bakes some serious biscuits, and flips a heavenly flapjack, known there as a “glory cake.”
• Santucci’s Pizza: Square, upside-down pizza (where the cheese hides under the sauce) is the signature of this casual eatery. Also on the menu at Santucci’s: Stromboli, hot wings, and garlic bread-cheesesteaks.
• Sarcone’s Deli: Details: Ninth Street’s legendary Italian bakery, Sarcone’s, produces some of the best bread and rolls in the region, and serves its own line of sandwiches and snacks, too.
• Supper: At their handsome two-tiered eatery, chef-owners Mitch and Jennifer Prensky take farm-to-table to the next level. The refined menu at Supper – from “mostly meatless” Monday night harvest dinners to Thursday night’s blue plate specials – gets many of its components from the couple’s very own local farm.
• 12 Steps Down: A dozen stair treads belowground, this drinkers’ pub inhabits the northern tip of the Italian Market. Three beers on tap – one microbrew, one big-name, one low-priced – and a rock-stocked jukebox aim to please patrons on all types of budgets at 12 Steps Down.
• Villa Di Roma: With red brick tiles outside and murals of old Italy in, this reliable Italian Market old-timer is a charming tribute to the Philadelphians who call their tomato sauce “gravy.” The lengthy menu at Villa Di Roma serves up the full roster of classics, from spaghetti and meatballs to clams casino to veal Marsala to baked ziti to Chianti by the glass.
• Wishing Well: A dozen microbrews on tap and a menu featuring scrapple-topped burgers and prosciutto-dressed Caesar salads are the draws at this straightforward bar and grill. Weekend brunch at the Well includes a gravy slathered “hangover bowl” and a make-your-own bloody Mary bar.
Cafes and Markets
• Anthony’s Italian Coffee & Chocolate House: For those who prefer their cafes with a strong Italian accent, report directly to Anthony’s, which offers panini, sweets and from-scratch gelato in addition to killer espresso drinks.
• Bean Exchange: Sure, this part of the city has its fair share of Starbucks, but it’s places like this friendly, day-through-night corner spot that make it feel like Philly. The Bean Exchange has dubbed its mild, signature, addictive small-batch roast “Morning Bell Blend.”
• Chapterhouse Café & Gallery: A historic townhouse transformed into a cleanly modern venue for cutting-edge art shows, and great fair trade coffees and teas. Though Chapterhouse is big –four white rooms in all – its many tables are typically crowded with students and lingerers.
• Claudio’s Specialty Foods: A salad bar’s worth of olives, a half dozen cases of cheese and salumeria, and more than a few shelves of olive oil, balsamic vinegar, dry pasta, canned tomatoes and other specialties that Italians do better are for sale at this friendly, well-priced Italian Market store. Next door, Claudio’s vends its homemade mozzarella.
• DiBruno Brothers: Narrow and jam-packed, this circa 1939 gourmet shop – also known as “the House of Cheese” – draws lines out the door and down the street for its unparalleled selection of international formaggio, plus cured meats and myriad other gourmet groceries. The DiBrunos have a second, newer and more expansive location near Rittenhouse Square.
• Fante’s Kitchen Shop: Before Walnut Street had Williams-Sonoma, the Italian Market had this multi-room storehouse of everything and anything for the home cook. And, more than just vending freshly-ground coffee beans (and every possible maker to brew them), essential to esoteric cake-making tools, top-of-the-line Le Creuset and Henckels, and gadgets galore, Fante’s often discounts them, too.
• Gleaner’s Café: A Hershey’s Kiss comes with every cappuccino, latte or plain ole Joe at this petite beatnik Italian Market hangout. Bagel sandwiches and vegan baked goods provide ample sustenance to balance out customers’ caffeine buzz at Gleaner’s, too.
• Isgro Pastries: More than a century ago, baker Gus Isgro established this Italian Market-area shop, a take-a-number spot whose unmistakably buttery aroma wafts down Christian Street. Customers swear by the pound, Italian cream and strawberry shortcakes – and kids love the cookies, but filled-to-order cannoli are Isgro’s top sellers.
• John’s Water Ice: Since 1945, this warm-weather takeout-ery has been transforming fruit, sugar and frozen water in to water ice – known elsewhere as “Italian ice.” Loyal patrons choose from lemon, chocolate, cherry or pineapple water ice; vanilla, chocolate, strawberry or butter pecan ice cream; or a combination thereof that John’s dubs “gelati.”
• Shot Tower Coffee: Named for the still extant old structure a few blocks away, Shot Tower is a “third wave” coffee-centric cafe and gets its Strada espresso machine from La Marzocco, its beans from Counter Culture and its artisanal sandwiches from East Passyunk’s Plenty market.
• Tortilleria y San Roman: Details: It doesn’t look like much from the outside, but San Roman is known far and wide for its calentitas (hot and fresh tortillas), delicious tortilla chips and spicy scratch-made salsa.