As a kid in sixties Manhattan, I learned to love Little Italy. Back then, it was a real neighborhood, with Pagliacci booming from apartment windows, butcher shops filled with unrecognizable cuts of meat, and street corners draped with dreamy guys who looked like extras out of West Side Story. Alas, New York’s Little Italy is now little more than a row of overpriced tourist trattorias. To get that old feeling, I take the train to Philadelphia and spend a weekend in South Philly. It’s an old-fashioned neighborhood, safe and friendly, dominated by the 9th Street market, a thrilling eight-block stretch jammed with produce stalls and meat-and-cheese stores. D’Angelo Brothers makes homemade sausage out of just about anything – boar, venison, fish. The butcher nearby dresses rabbits and hangs whole hogs in the window. There are dozens of restaurants, all cheap and all authentic. My paisans rave about Ralph’s, which has been owned by the same family since the turn of the century and still doesn’t accept credit cards. But I am partial to Frankie’s Seafood Italiano. The décor is Early Nautical Goofball, and the delicately flavored fresh fish comes in enormous portions. Between meals, grab a taxi to the Philadelphia Museum of Art or Independence Hall. And make a non-Italian pit stop at the birthplace of South Philly’s other great contribution to western civilization: Pat’s, the proud home of the cheese steak. Avoid the big hotels downtown, and overnight in the neighborhood. The Society Hill, at 3rd and Chestnut, has twelve charming rooms and is only a couple of blocks north of South Street, the border of South Philly.
DETAILS The Society Hill Hotel (215-925-1919; rooms start at $88); Ralph’s Italian Restaurant (215-627-6011; entrées, $10 to $17); Frankie’s Seafood Italiano (215-468-9989; entrées, $10 to $30); Pat’s King of Steaks (215-468-1547; cheese steaks, $5); Amtrak (800-872-7245).