3.23.2016

Dispatch from Philadelphia: City of Truffles

Last week, I recapped day one of my recent trip to Philadelphia, PA, and today, the second half of the visit is here for you.

We started our Saturday at Di Bruno Bros. in the Italian Market, which to me, is a much more appealing tourist destination than the Liberty Bell. This street is lined with meat stores, cafes, produce vendors, and Italian specialty purveyors like DiBruno. When you go there (and you must), accept that you will have zero personal space because the place is smaller than my walk-in closet, and hook up with the cheesemonger behind the counter who suits your fancy ASAP.

Your cheesemonger will be your passport to the most amazing experience possible at Di Bruno. He or she will stow your intended purchases behind the counter so that your hands are free to jam all of the samples of divine cheese, meats, and antipasti you are about to receive into your gaping maw. Trust this person. She will not only feed you stunning mortadella (Italian Bologna, but about 349 times better than Oscar Meyer) studded with black truffles, but also saffron-infused sheep's milk cheese flavored with whole peppercorns, sugary cashews finished with lava salt, and prosciutto that will make you forget your own name. She will tell you her favorite restaurants in town, give you insider secrets on cooking, and suggest products you might like based on your reactions to the samples she has provided. 

Yes, this is all very seductive. You will not leave this store cheaply. Plan for it, then go for it, because it's an experience you won't regret. Our cheesemonger had our number within our first 60 seconds in that shop, and we were under her spell for the duration. I don't usually like the feeling of being upsold, but at Di Bruno, any concerns were borne away on a luscious raft of lardo.

With truffles on our breath and heavy bags to carry, we had a leisurely morning and skipped lunch. But by mid-afternoon, the munchies came calling. Our trusty friend Michael Solomonov had an answer to this dilemma, of course. Right across from Abe Fisher, on Sansom St., is Dizengoff, a tiny hummusiya, or hummus factory. It is the home of the snack you usually eat from a plastic tub, and if that is your norm, hummus is about to make you cry tears of joy.


This is not a tub o'hummus. It's not even the stuff you might make at home from canned chick peas, tahini, lemon juice and garlic. This is fluffy, ethereal, earthy, nutty, and almost but-not-quite sweet. It's sweet in the sense that there is a total absence of bitterness, because they actually remove the thin, acrid skin of every chicken pea before they grind this dip. 

We got our hummus topped with carrots roasted with cumin, fresh mint, and a splash of fruity, peppery olive oil. The pita were fresh from the oven, and a tiny dish of pickles and cucumber and pickled onion salad came alongside.


A hummus break at Dizengoff will set you back around $15. There are about six tables to cop a squat at, or you can take your booty and go. They have other toppings that change daily, like grilled lamb, fried chick peas, and mushrooms. You would never put these things on top of your supermarket bean dip, but this creamy, silky super hummus is a dream base for the flavors of the Mediterranean. Put this place on your list, and acknowledge again that Solomonov is the food king in this town.

For dinner, we crossed culinary battle lines and supped at Stephen Starr's Alma de Cuba. This sleek, dark, chic spot near Rittenhouse was very good - just not quite as good as Zahav or Abe Fisher - which is now looking like a reality that will curse many of my dining endeavors.


We started with the bone marrow with oxtail croquettes. The croquettes are hiding on the plate up there, under the pickles onions and herbs. This dish was much milder than most bone marrow offerings I've tried, which tend to be really robust, meaty...caveman cuisine. The oxtail may not be the right protein for croquettes - the delicate flavor of the meat got lost with the breading, onions and herbs, for me. Fortunately, the sauce served with all of this was most likely the braising liquid from the oxtails. It was well-seasoned, round in its full, beefy flavor. We both loved it.

Our other starter was a special empanada with a type of fungus that grows on corn in Mexico called huitlacoche. I realize that fungus that grows on corn dos not sound like the most appetizing of foodstuffs, but think of truffles! To us, they tasted like truffles, and to be sure, they are delicacies in Mexico. I'm not sure how they ended up in a Cuban restaurant, but we preferred this veggie-forward dish, with its layers of roasted and fresh produce very much compared to the bone marrow.

We had to get tostones, which are the double-fried plantains with garlic that you find in both Cuba and Puerto Rico. The ones at Alma were wincingly fortified with garlic and lime juice. It sort of overpowered the earthy, potato flavor you usually get from the plantains, but they were crispy, and I liked them better leftover the next day.



Our entree was the lechon asado, which is spit-roasted pork, skin-on, bone-in. I have read about lechon and watched it on travel shows for years, and I was not missing out on it at Alma. And no joke: it was freaking amazing. So, think about pulled pork, and all of the things about it that are good: salty, fatty, meaty, savory, umami goodness. Now, think about the crisp, roasted, seasoned turkey skin on Thanksgiving, and how everyone fights over it because: DELICIOUS. Now, imagine pulled pork flavored with sour orange and aromatics AND crunchy, salty skin together. Now imagine enough of that to feed both Jill and me, plus leftovers. There was some kinda of bland rice and beans underneath, but I could not have cared less. That pork won the day.


You see the brown, blistered skin there, yes? That's what yum looks like.

The lechon was really the highlight at Alma de Cuba. Our service was friendly, but the restaurant was very, very dark, the cocktails were somewhat less inspired than I've come to expect at this level of restaurant lately, and you know what? It just wasn't quite at the level of our meal at Abe Fisher. At both Zahav and Abe, you sink into every bite. The food is incredibly balanced, somehow both decadent and lighter than a lot of the fine dining cuisine out there right now. We loved the pork at Alma de Cuba, but coming on the heels of such excellence, this dinner didn't quite do it for us. I give it a seven on the BHS scale.

Alma de Cuba Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

As we closed out our Saturday night in Philly, breathing truffles still from our Di Bruno odyssey, we reveled in the wonder of a very good food day. Whether you visit the City of Brotherly Love for history or a foodie weekend, it will fill you up. Unless you have sticky fingers, which can be a real problem in the Italian Market:



Listen up, Hungries! I have a whole bunch of travel ahead, including Hamburg, Germany, Saratoga Springs, Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Austin, Texas. You know what that means: dispatches from all over! Stay tuned! My personality is big; my hunger is bigger!

2 comments:

  1. Starr cannot touch Solomonov right now. I love it. This reminds me to make a freaking reservation at Abe Fisher like now.

    I always go into DiBruno with my wallet open. I know I will not get out without dropping a boatload and that's okay.

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    1. But you don't mind the wallet invasion because it's so lovely, right? That's how I felt.

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