Earlier this fall, I spent a few days hanging out in Philadelphia, thanks to my husband, who had won a three-night stay at the swanky Le Méridien. Along with the usual shopping/art/sightseeing trifecta, I was pleasantly surprised to discover a thriving culinary scene in downtown Philly, with an amazing array of great restaurants serving all sorts of inventive and delectable cuisine.
At Zavino, an intimate wine bar and pizzeria on the corner of South 13th and Sansom, you’ll find homemade pastas, small plates made from fresh seasonal ingredients and delicious pies in the Neapolitan style. Nab a seat at one of the tables in front of the floor-to-ceiling French doors and peruse the well-priced wine list, with additional vino specials listed on a chalkboard over the bar. We accompanied our wine (Callia Alta Malbec for me, Primarius Pinot Noir for the mister) with a serving of the homemade ricotta stuffed meatballs and a selection of incredibly satisfying cheeses (standouts included the earthy Truffle Tremor goat cheese from California, the pleasantly malodorous Point Reyes Bleu and the soft, tangy Kunik from New York). On a subsequent visit, we had the garden pizza from the Daily Feature Board (topped with tomatoes, mozzarella, broccoli rabe, roasted peppers, onions, and roasted fingerling potatoes). Yum!
Twenty Manning is on (you guessed it) Manning Street, just around the corner from Rittenhouse Square. The signage at this sophisticated yet casual spot promises “Fish, Fowl, Beef, Pork” – but there’s plenty to please herbivores as well. Settle into a yellow leather banquette at this neighborhood bistro and order up a plate of farmer’s market beets (topped with local goat cheese and a drizzle of lavender honey and aged balsamic) or deviled eggs (unlike grandma’s version, the yolks of these bad boys are whipped with scallion confit and topped with smoked paprika). There are all manner of burgers (from traditional beef and veggie to marinated tuna and grass-fed bison), along with a wonderful raw bar and tons of salads. Memorable entrees include maple brined wild Berkshire pork chops with honeyed mission figs, melted gorgonzola and seared brussels sprouts; seared scallops with kalabasa mash, sautéed spinach and tomato truffle coulis; and pan-seared butternut squash ravioli with fresh ricotta, parmigiano-reggiano, caramelized onions, and crispy sage-brown butter, along with standing daily specials (Monday is beef bourguignon, Tuesday is an open-face turkey sandwich, Wednesday is spaghetti bolognese, and so on). If you have room for dessert, don’t miss the half-baked Toll House cookie with vanilla ice cream. It’s nostalgic indulgence at its decadent best.
Dessert may not be an option at the traditional Spanish tapas restaurant Amada, located on a hip section of Chestnut Street not far from Independence National Historical Park (home of the Liberty Bell). At least not if you opt for chef Jose Garces’ elaborate tasting menu, which is what we did one Saturday night in October. Seated at a high table opposite the long marble bar in the lively dining room, we sampled what felt like a dozen delicious dishes, beginning with a mix of chorizo and cured hams (which hang above the bar, itself topped with a gleaming silver meat slicer). This gave way to a variety of traditional tapas (Spanish octopus, garlic shrimp, lamb meatballs with shaved manchego), a spiced pumpkin soup with zucchini and burrata, Spanish flatbreads topped with artichoke, wild mushrooms, black truffles, and more manchego, along with a smattering of vegetarian plates. And this was before the grilled fish, brochettes, and meats arrived, all of which were incredibly flavorful and incredibly filling. By the time dessert rolled around, we were stuffed to the gills. That did not, however, prevent us from nibbling on the Lemon Torta and Crema Catalana (vanilla custard with caramel sauce, ginger, and pine nuts) that acted as a sweet finish to our savory adventure.
Barbuzzo is enjoying quite the buzz right now, thanks to a recent visit by Rachael Ray and articles in Food & Wine and Bon Appétit (the latter showcasing chef Marcie Turney’s Salted Caramel Budino; “budino” is Italian for pudding). That’s what got us in the door of this pan-Mediterranean joint (which is just down the street from Zavino in trendy Midtown Village). But what impressed us once we were there (even more than the rugged-refined reclaimed wood interior, incredible selection of fresh local veggies and the budino, which more than lived up to its hype) was the dinner menu. From first bite (sheep’s milk ricotta and fig topped with vincotto, herbs, and sea salt) to last (the aforementioned budino and Lancaster stonefruit bread pudding), the hubby and I were transported to a place of sheer culinary delight. Along the way, we savored pasta with braised duck ragù, pickled pear, pecorino, and toasted hazelnuts (pour monsieur) and wild mushroom and fontina risotto with warm house-cured lardo, pignoli pesto, and San Marzano tomato sauce(pour moi).
Fork, on the other hand, is a Philadelphia institution that has lost none of its cool since opening on Market Street some 14 years ago. Though “warm” is probably a better way to describe this elegant, beautifully lit eatery, which is so committed to local, seasonal ingredients that the award-winning menu changes daily. On the afternoon we dropped by, that meant a half-dozen East Coast Fire River oysters on the half shell followed by a grilled skirt steak salad with salsa verde, avocado, crispy onions and ancho chili-buttermilk dressing, and a house-made turkey burger with marinated mushrooms, herbed goat cheese, and greens on a freshly baked bun. Fresh ginger cake with caramelized apples, cassis crème fraîche, and apple reduction completed the final meal of our Philly sojourn, none of which we will soon forget.
Lauren David Peden writes for Rue La La as a Contributing Editor.