Dear Ninth Street:
I remember the first time we met, when I was a food-phobic suburban kid. Your hanging rabbit carcasses, hog’s heads, and whole fish stacked high in open sidewalk-facing containers rendered me speechless with anxiety.
Still, I loved your grease-streaked pizza slices, strong and stinky cheese samples, and crunchy, rich, chocolate chip cannoli. What I noticed even then was that you whispered something I couldn’t understand into my small ears about the future I would have and the food writer I would eventually become. You were giving me hints about how to be myself.
Later, after I met my husband Dan, you provided a stage for our romance. Some couples have weekend morning rituals that involve the New York Times. Dan and I would give up sleeping in on Saturdays to beat the lines at Sabrina’s (where we’d later have our wedding rehearsal dinner) to share breakfast before shopping for fresh mozzarella, carnaroli rice, whole-bean coffee, charcuterie, seeded Italian bread, and imported blue cheese.
When we bought our house after we married in 2005, proximity to your shops and stalls was a requirement. Our kitchen is stocked with wares from Fante’s. Our coffee mugs brim with Anthony’s rich Italian Market Reserve. Our homemade pizzas are dotted with fennel-filled peppery sausage from Fiorella’s. And almost every meal I make is built on a foundation of chopped onions sizzled in a fragrant pool of Claudio’s house-label extra virgin olive oil. There would be no real homemaking for me that could happen without you.
Since then, some things have changed. You have diversified, taking on more and multicultural shops and restaurants. One of my new favorites is the Tortilleria San Roman at the corner of Ninth and Montrose, where I am always handed a soft, hot tortilla sample that I top with a plastic spoonful of fiery red salsa and devour in two bites even if I’m full. I also appreciate the addition of Paesano’s and its terrific version of the city’s real official sandwich, roast pork with broccoli rabe and provolone.
Patterns between us have emerged. I know it’s summer when Fante’s breaks out its homemade coffee granita. Annually, I need to eat my favorite mussels at Ralph’s and a plate of cheese-smothered eggplant parmesan and a chilled glass of chianti at Vila Di Roma. These days, Dan will go shop at Claudio’s while I wedge myself into the perma-fray at DiBruno’s, where I will secretly relish a velvety sample of prosciutto without saving my husband one bite.
But you and I both know what bonds us isn’t transactional or even gustatory. It’s your sense of place, your distinctive pulse and personality that keeps me anchored in your orbit. I can’t resist your mess of urban sights and smells, and the garland of swirling litter that can simultaneously delight and disgust me. I am routinely seduced by the collective choreography that draws me this way or that on a sidewalk crammed with other wanderers pulled along by the same subconscious forces, all of us falling into step with something bigger and older than ourselves.At my most depleted, when I need powering up and calming down, I walk your blocks — alone, without money for shopping, without a destination or plan — and you bring me back to myself. There’s inspiration all around. From the yeasted air that wafts out of Sarcone’s to the acrid reek and screech of the live poultry sold south of Washington to those famous cheesesteak shops where I have never ordered a sandwich, you make me feel like there’s at least one place in the world where I belong.
Joy Manning is the editor of Table Matters and hails from Mayfair, but she has put down roots for keeps in Passyunk Square.
This essay was originally published on the blog Philly Love Notes.