Philly: More Than Cheesesteaks

Whenever I visit someplace new, I ask myself, “Could I live here?” Even if it’s a lovely place, it may not be a place I want to wake up every day. Case in point: I love New York. But I love visiting New York. I couldn’t live there. Not unless I was was so enormously wealthy that I could afford to live, say, overlooking the park. Ditto those remote areas where the landscape goes as far as the eyes can see. Sure it’s beautiful, but, man, is it inconvenient!

Philly is one of those places where I could absolutely live. It’s urban without being overwhelming. The architecture is amazing. It’s walkable and everyone there seems down-to-earth. The cobblestone streets, the old hitching posts(!), its significance to the American Revolution … it’s really a charming city — more so than Charm City (Baltimore).

We went for a quick weekend trip recently. Technically it was my third visit, though I hesitate to count my first time, when my mother and I went with a relative’s wife so that she could check out some duplex her son was buying  — hardly an opportunity for exploration. The last couple of times, though, have cemented my affection for the City of Brotherly Love.

One can’t really talk about Philly without mentioning its infamous cheesesteaks, though. Yeah, sure. Maybe you’ve had a cheesesteak from your local sub shop. It. Is. Not. The. Same. You gotta go to Philly for the real deal, and for us, the real deal is at Jim’s on South Street. Maybe it’s the sense of history or the retro interior, but this is our place for cheese steaks. Nowhere else will do, regardless the length of the line to get inside. Mine tends to be fairly simple: provolone, onions, hot and sweet peppers. Espen, however, goes for the gusto: triple cheese (cheese whiz, provolone, and American), onions, and sweet peppers. He tells this story about the first time he was in Philly and a cab driver told him that the reason the Philly cheesesteak is the best is because of the bread. It’s the water used in making it, he said. Espen was aghast. “That water?” he asked, nodding outside the car window at the river. The driver answered in the affirmative in a manner that did not invite argument.

My first real visit to the city was with Espen, who occasionally has meetings not too far away in Moorestown, New Jersey. Our first night there, after his navy stuff, we joined one of his colleagues for a long walk down to Old Town. This colleague was hell-bent on pasta. We eventually found ourselves at La Famiglia, which turned out to be really delicious. The next night, we went for Cuban fare, which was also fantastic. Looking to try something new this time around, we found ourselves at Marrakesh, located on South Street between 4th and 5th. It did not disappoint. While not every dish blew us away, the ambiance alone was more than worth the visit. In their own words: “Rug covered banquets, vibrantly colored pillows, incense scented rooms and dimly lit ambiance help to set the stage for an authentic feast with all mystical allure and spirit of Morocco.” If you plan to visit, make reservations and wear loose clothes. Oh — and don’t try to finish every dish. With seven courses, you’re going to be hurting by the end. It’s good that Philly is such a walkable city …

You’d think we went to Philly just for the food. Not so! This time we went so that I could get my fill (and then some) of art. I had the privilege of visiting the Barnes Foundation collection in its original home in Merion, Pennsylvania, before it was stolen moved to the new location in Philly. I was curious to see the new environs. While the setting isn’t the same, I do appreciate that they at least honored Mr. Barnes’s vision and kept the groupings together. I’m still in awe that this one man managed to acquire this ridiculously large collection of largely Impressionist art (181 Renoirs!), valued at between $20 billion and $30 billion. And I’m grateful to have gotten to see it not once but twice … even if by the end I felt like I had OD’d on art. Despite not being an art lover, Espen joined me for my rather slow stroll through every room. He even discovered he’s a fan of El Greco.

While we didn’t do it this time around, one cannot visit Philadelphia without making a run up the steps to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, made famous by Sylvester Stallone in Rocky. Yes, you will look like a dork. Yes, you will feel like a dork. Yes, do it anyway.

We also got to visit one of my oldest friends, Ian. Lucky for us, he was not averse to driving down from Trenton to join us for brunch at FARMiCiA. He’s also responsible for our visit to Elfreth’s Alley, the oldest residential street in the United States. My photo below doesn’t do it justice.

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