Millions of us watched as Stanley Tucci was “Searching for Italy” throughout the bel paese. His narration and wanderlust-inspiring cinematography — not to mention the food he joyously savored — transported us to Italy from our own homes.
With the COVID pandemic a continued reality and travel a continued challenge, I thought about how I could search for Italy in my hometown of Philadelphia to fill the void. I was unsurprised to find that Italy is everywhere.
Home to the second largest Italian-American population in the U.S., Philadelphia has an abundance of Italian restaurants, pizza joints, food shops, and cultural institutions. Some of these spots have a deep history from their Italian immigrant founders. Others are a new wave of Italian-inspired establishments.
While there is no Mediterranean Sea, and our East-Coast-hustle mentality hasn’t quite internalized that dolce far niente lifestyle, we nevertheless have many places that can immerse us in Italian flavors and culture.
Channel your own dolce vita by indulging in a few of my favorite Italian-owned or Italian-inspired spots.
Explore Philadelphia’s Cultural History
Take a leisurely stroll in the Italian Market, the oldest and largest continuous open-air marketplace in the U.S. Overflowing fruit and vegetable stalls, butchers, old restaurants, florists, and gift shops are just some of the many sites lining South 9th Street. You’ll hear a medley of languages, as this neighborhood has been built by generations of immigrants beyond the Italian-American community. You’ll feel this warm and welcoming vibe whether you’re picking up imported Italian pasta, standing in line for freshly-baked Mexican tortillas, or sipping Vietnamese Pho.
In the mid-to-late 1800s after Italian Unification, there was massive immigration primarily to the South Philly neighborhood. Learn about Philly’s Italian roots at the History of Italian Immigration Museum. This small gallery on Passyunk Avenue documents the history and stories of Italians starting a new life in the U.S. Trinkets, treasures, and memories donated by Italian-American families are abundantly displayed: old photographs, ship manifests, antique pasta presses, a shoemaker’s hammer, and even a vintage grape press for at-home wine-making. Though the museum is small, there is a lot to absorb here.
Philadelphia’s Best Italian Restaurants
There is no shortage of Italian restaurants in Philadelphia. For every one restaurant I love, there are dozens more that I have yet to try.
There’s Alimentari, where colossal rounds of parmesan, a plethora of wine bottles, and a chic marble bar set the stage for a beautiful meal. The menu is centered around small plates – a perfect opportunity to try many dishes and share with a friend.
Considered to be the oldest Italian restaurant in the U.S., Ralph’s first opened its doors in 1900 and is still managed by the founding family. They’re proud of their history, and their menu is a blend of classic Italian-American fare and “old world favorites.”
For a taste of traditional Abruzzese cuisine, visit trattoria Le Virtù. I love their olive all’ascolana (pork-filled fried olives) and pasta Taccozelle, featuring sausage from Abruzzo, mushrooms, black truffle, and saffron.
Enjoy Roman food from Roman-born Chef Gianluca Demontis at Melagrano, a cozy BYOB in Rittenhouse Square.
And for a surprise, try Murph’s Bar, an unassuming Irish pub on Girard Avenue in Fishtown (and perhaps the last place you’d expect for Italian food!). The chef Francesco Bellastelli moved from Puglia to Philly less than ten years ago, befriended Murph’s owners, and started operating the kitchen. On the menu, you’ll find heaping bowls of tagliatelle, gnocchi, and gargenelli, just to name a few. You’ll also find a well-priced, predominantly Italian wine list. Come hungry and still leave with leftovers.
The Best Pizzerias In Philadelphia
These pizza spots are restaurants too, of course. But the pizza scene in Philly is so vast, it deserves its own category. Lucky for me, my absolute favorites happen to be within walking distance in my neighborhood in Fishtown.
W.M. Mulherins Sons, a decidedly non-Italian name retained from the former pre-Prohibition era whiskey distillery where it currently operates, has fantastic wood-fired pies. Go for the Double Margherita, a spin off the classic pie featuring burrata in addition to buffalo mozzarella. Or try the Spicy Jawn – a name that reminds you that you’re in Philly, with piccante Italian ingredients like pepperoni, hot coppa, caciocavallo, and long hots. They have a wonderful wine list, other Italian fare, and a boutique hotel upstairs.
Named after its creator Joe Beddia, Pizzeria Beddia is another Philly favorite. Once a 27-square foot operation producing only 40 pies a day (dubbed the “best pizza in America” in 2015), the tiny pizza spot transformed into a much larger restaurant in 2019. Try the arrabbiata pizza, with an abundance of pickled chilies, or the tomato pie. I always save room for dessert: their specialty is homemade soft serve ice cream spiked with a shot of amaro.
Neapolitan-style pizza lovers will rejoice in Eeva and Nomad. Angelo’s, a bustling operation in South Philly, churns out large pies for takeout. My former Italian professor once told me that Angelo’s had the best pizza he’s ever tasted in America. That’s saying a lot!
Where To Find Italian Pastries In Philaldelphia
I have a soft spot for the old-fashioned Italian bakery, with sights of little cookies, pastries, biscotti, and the decadent cannoli. Many of these bakeries in Philadelphia are now in their third or fourth generation, continuing the American dream of Italian families who emigrated to the U.S. over a hundred years ago.
Termini Brothers is one of the most well-known, with several locations including South Philly and Reading Terminal Market. I love watching them fill the cannoli as they’re made to order, from filling the shell via a giant pastry bag hung from the ceiling, to delicately dusting some powdered sugar at the end.
The sfogliatella pastry has my heart. Isgro Pastries in the Italian Market makes my favorite version: crunchy and flaky on the outside, and softly sweet with ricotta and orange zest on the inside. Isgro also has a great cookie selection. I usually bring home several varieties because it’s too hard to pick just one or two (who says you have to choose?)
When roaming about the Italian Market, I love to pop into Anthony’s Italian Coffee & Chocolate House for a cappuccino and a sweet treat. They have ample outdoor seating and lots of chocolates to choose from. If gelato is more your style, they have a small selection of Italian classics (like Sicilian pistachio) or Americanized flavors (like pumpkin pie in the fall.)
Speaking of gelato, Philly surprisingly does not have many spots that are exclusively dedicated to the frozen treat. Instead, various restaurants and cafes offer gelato alongside other menu options.
That being said, do not miss the gelato at Gran Caffe l’Aquila. “Italian Gelato Champion” Stefano Biasini has won the World Cup of Gelato (yes, that’s a thing!) and creates excellent artisanal flavors for the gelateria. While indulging in your gelato, admire the design: the entire restaurant was built in Italy and shipped to Philly for installation. Reminiscent of the original café in Abruzzo that was sadly destroyed in an earthquake, Gran Caffe l’Aquila has an authentic Italian bar, sells plenty of made-in-Italy products, and even hosts Italian culture classes.
Italian Specialty Grocery Stores
Di Bruno Brothers is a cherished Philly institution. It opened in 1939 as a small shop in the Italian Market, and now has multiple retail locations in the Philadelphia area, along with catering, import, and an e-commerce business. Di Bruno’s is a little bit of everything. It is a “House of Cheese.” It has a wine and beer bottle shop. It stocks salamis and imported pastas and oils. It sells sandwiches, pastries, and meat. Visit the location on 18th and Chestnut, grab a few snacks, and enjoy them in the nearby Rittenhouse Square Park.
For mouthwatering hoagies, try Castellino’s, an Italian grocery and sandwich shop. Be sure to pick up some sliced meat, olives, pasta, vinegar, and even some grooming products while you’re there.
After tasting the foods and exploring the neighborhoods, don’t forget to pamper yourself. Benita Bianca is a boutique hair salon co-owned by twins Cabrina and Daniella Sulimay, who are part of the fifth generation of an Italian American family of hairstylists. In addition to their excellent quality of hair services, they proudly use Davines haircare products. Davines is a sustainable brand that produces products in their laboratories in Parma, Italy.
Head over to Victoria Roggio Beauty, a chic and airy spa in Old City, to pick up some products from clean beauty brand Furtuna Skin. With ingredients that include wild-foraged plants from an organic farm in Sicily, Furtuna’s skincare is an exceptional combination of luxury and sustainability. I love the moisturizing-yet-lightweight Due Alberi oil.
Whether you’re visiting Philly for the first time or you’re a longtime expert, I’d love to hear about your Italian favorites and how you live la dolce vita in the City of Brotherly Love.