Italian Market Area

Philadelphia City, Philadelphia County, PA

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The Italian Market Neighborhood is roughly centered around Christian and South 9th Streets.

Visit Philadelphia's Little Italy (as we did one bright October day in 2008), then read below an excerpt from Frank Morley's 1920 collection, Travels in Philadelphia. You'll be reminded of a cliche, the "wisdom" of which has endured through the ages: "as much as things change, they sometimes stay the same." Mr. Morely's Italian Market is gone forever, but take a walk down 9th street today, squint your eyes, flare your nostrils, and maybe ... just maybe ...

Little Italy [1]

There are three gentlemen with whom I have been privileged, on happy occasions, to take travels in Philadelphia. The first is the Mountaineer, a tall vagabond, all bone and gristle, member emeritus of the Hoboes' Union, who can tramp all day on seven cents' worth of milk chocolate, knows the ins and outs of every queer trade and is a passionate student of back alleys and mean streets. The second is the Soothsayer, an amiable visionary whose eye dotes on a wider palette. The third is the Epicure, a person very similar to Napoleon the Third, late emperor of the French, some mysterious tincture of the Mediterranean moves in his strictly Saxon blood. ... To eat a meal in company with the Epicure is like watching a great artist at work. He studies the menu with the bitter concentration of a sculptor surveying the block of marble from which the statue is to be chiseled. ... Waiters, with that subtle instinct of theirs, know as soon as they see that delicately rounded figure enter the alle a manger, that here is a man to be reckoned with.

[It was] my privilege in being able to accompany the Epicure the other day to the Italian market at Ninth and Christian streets, where he purposed to look over the stalls. It was a day of entrancing sunlight, when all that lively district of Little Italy leaped and trembled in the fullness of light and appetizing fluent air. One saw a secret pathos in the effort to reproduce in the flat dull streets of a foreign city something of the color and mirth of Mediterranean soil. One often wonders what fantastic dream or illusion — was it only a steamship poster? — led so many citizens of the loveliest land on earth to forsake their blue hills and opal valleys to people the cheerless byways of American towns? What does Little Italy think of us and our climate in the raw, bitter days of a western winter? Well, now that the letters are speeding homeward telling of the unbelievable approach of prohibition, there will be few enough of those bright-eyed immigrants!

Christian street breathes the Italian genius for good food. After lunching in a well-known Italian restaurant on Catharine street, where the Epicure instructed me in the mysteries of gnocchi, frittura mista, rognone, scallopini al marsala and that marvelously potent clear coffee which seems to the uninstructed to taste more like wine than coffee, and has a curious shimmer of green round the rim of the liquid, we strolled among the pavement stalls of the little market. It seems to me, just from a cursory study of the exhibit, that the secret of Italian gusto for food is that they take it closer to nature, and also that they are less keen than we about meat. They do not buy their food already prepared in cardboard boxes. Fish, vegetables, cheese, fruit and nuts seem to be their chief delights. Fish of every imaginable kind may be seen on Christian street. Some of them, small, flattened, silver-shining things, are packed cunningly in kegs in a curious concentric pattern so that the glitter of their perished eyes gleams in hypnotizing circles. Eels, mussels, skates, shrimps, cuttlefish — small pink corpses, bathed in their own ink — and some very tiny ocean morsels that look like white-bait. Cheeses of every kind and color, some of them a dull yellow and molded in a queer gourd-like shape. But the vegetables and herbs are the most inscrutable. Even the gastrologer Epicure was unable to explain them all to me. Chopped bay leaves, artichokes, mushrooms, bunches of red and green peppers, little boxes of dried peas, beans, powdered red pepper, wrinkled olives and raisins, and strange-smelling bundles of herbs that smell only like straw, but which presumably possess some strange seasoning virtue to those who understand them. In the windows of the grocers' shops you will always find Funghi secchi dclla Liguria (Ligurian dried mushrooms) and Finocchio uso Sicilia (Fennel, Sicilian style), which names are poems in themselves. And, of course, the long Bologna sausages — and great round loaves of bread.

The Italian sweet tooth is well hinted at in the Christian street pasticcerias (pastry shops), where cakes, macaroons, biscuits and wafers of every color beckon to the eye. Equally chromatic are the windows of the bookshops, where bright portraits of General Diaz, King Victor and President Wilson beam down upon knots of gossipers arguing on the sunny side of the street, and a magnificent edition of the Divina Commedia lies side by side with Amore Proibito and I Sotterranei di New York. Another volume whose title is legible even to one with scarcely any smattering of tongues is Il Kaiser All' Inferno! Some of the shops in Little Italy seem to embrace a queer union of trades. For instance, one man announces his office as a "Funeral agent and detective bureau"; another, "Bookbinder and flower shop." In one window may be seen elaborate plans of Signor Menotti Nanni's Ocean Floating Safe, in which transatlantic passengers are recommended to stow their valuables. The ship may sink and likewise the passengers, but in the Ocean Floating Safe your jewels and private papers will float off undamaged and roam the ocean until some one comes to save them. The Italian name for this ingenious device is Cassaforte Galleggiante, which we take to mean a swimming strong-box.

No account of Christian street would be complete without at least some mention of the theaters between Eighth and Seventh streets. The other afternoon I stopped in at one of them, expecting to see moving pictures, which are comprehensible in all languages; but instead I found two Italian comedians — a man and a woman — performing on an odd little stage to an audience which roared applause at every line. I was unable to understand a word, but the skill and grace of the performers were evident, also the suave and liquid versification of their lines. The manager walked continually up and down the aisles, rebuking every sound and movement other than legitimate applause with a torrential hiss. Every time a baby squalled — and there were many — the manager sibilated like a python. The audience took this quite for granted, so evidently it is customary. It is a salutary lesson in modesty to attend a performance conducted in a foreign language: there is nothing that so rapidly impresses upon one our stupid provincial ignorance of most tongues but our own.

Little Italy is only a few blocks away from Chestnut street, and yet I dare-say thousands of our citizens hardly suspect its existence. If you chance to go down there about 1 o'clock some bright afternoon, when all the children are enjoying the school recess, and see that laughing, romping mass of bright-eyed young citizens, you will wonder whether they are to be congratulated on growing up in this new country of wonderful opportunity, or to be pitied for losing the beauty and old tradition of that storied peninsula so far away.

  1. Morley, Christopher, Travels in Philadelphia, David McKay Company, Philadelphia, 1920

Nearby Neighborhoods

Street Names
10th Street South • 11th Street South • 12th Street South • 13th Street South • 7th Street South • 8th Street South • 9th Street South • Bainbridge Street • Broad Street South • Carpenter Street • Catherine Street • Christian Street • Fitzwater Street • Montrose Street • Washington Avenue

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