Darkened Skies, Beautiful Philadelphia

img_0891 At about 8:30 PM on the first Friday of the current month, my wife Sandy and I exited Capofitto, an Italian bistro cum gelato/sorbetto (ice cream/sorbet) store that we like. We’d downed a pizza-centric meal there, capped off with scoops of cappuccino gelato and peach sorbetto. Pretty damn good for sure. Capofitto is in the heart of Philadelphia’s Old City section, whose roots go back powerfully to Colonial days. No doubt the block on which Capifitto resides, a length of Chestnut Street, was trod upon countless times by any Founding Father you can name, not to mention his romantic partner(s), as was just about every Old City block. I find it très neat to think about that. Old City is a cool part of town.

“What next?” we asked ourselves. Should we go back to our home in the burbs? Nah, the night was young. And quite dark, as the Sun had set an hour earlier and neither moonlight nor starlight was apparent to me. Essentially, Old City was being illuminated by electric lights, and in a muted manner. Which I enjoyed. Everything seemed dreamy and atmospheric — the semi-ancient brick buildings, the stone-paved streets. I felt as though I was on a movie set. I asked Sandy if she’d like to go for a walk. She said yes, and off we went down Chestnut Street toward nearby Penn’s Landing, a large swath of Philadelphia’s Delaware River waterfront. The night not only was young, it also was calling. 

img_0894Like the Founding Fathers, Sandy and I have moseyed along Old City’s arteries many times. That’s an activity that doesn’t get old. We keep coming back for more. And this being a night whose effects I actually was paying attention to, which isn’t always the case, I felt myself getting into the scene more than usual. “Holy brotherly love,” I murmured to myself when, half a block from Capofitto, I turned around and saw the huge and perfectly-sculpted United States Custom House, which went up in the 1930s, glowing warmly in its white lights. “That’s gorgeous.” Indeed it was. I snapped its picture, the first of many that Sandy and I would snap as we investigated Philadelphia under darkened skies.

img_1546In a flash we were at Penn’s Landing, a once unassuming and still developing stretch of territory that city officials have been master-planning and trying to force into glorious bloom for over 50 years. To put it another way, the keys to unlocking Penn’s Landing’s full potential as a tourist and city resident draw have yet to be discovered. But it’s getting there, as we shall see. First thing you notice at night when you enter Penn’s Landing near its northern end, as Sandy and I did, is the Ben Franklin Bridge, which connects our nations’ first capitol with Camden, New Jersey. The bridge is massive and grand and, when skies are black, a visual wow. Why? Because years ago someone had the sterling idea to string colorful, Christmassy lights along it. Sandy and I looked at the bridge long and hard and, as on many nights before, we liked what we saw.

The park's LED lights (center right) seen from a distance.
The park’s LED lights (at right) seen from a distance.

I must have realized this on past visits too, but that night I was taken by the low-wattage illumination in most parts of Penn’s Landing. Just like in Old City. Philadelphia — and I’m all for this — ain’t aiming for a Times Square type of lighting blitz. A feeling of intimacy, I think, is the result throughout most of the city. And that casual, relaxed spirit was true even in the section of Penn’s Landing that the masses have discovered and turned into a destination. I speak of Spruce Street Harbor Park, which drew closer as Sandy and I headed south along Penn’s Landing’s walkways. At night we couldn’t and wouldn’t have wanted to miss it, because the possibly thousands of color-shifting LED lights hanging from its trees were superb and put us under a spell. And we didn’t need to don shades . . . yes, the lights dazzled, but subtly.

img_1552Spruce Street Harbor Park, loaded with things to do, overlooks Penn’s Landing’s marina, which I never used to think much of because I’d rarely if ever notice anything interesting going on within it. And the grounds of what is now the park, which opened for business in 2014, once were as bland and barren as an unbuttered slice of white bread, except for a grove of trees and a monument to Christopher Columbus. That, at least, is the way I remember the area. But all that has changed. Lo and behold, SSHP has become, I’d guess, the most popular place to hang out in all of Philadelphia. The governmental folks who orchestrated the park’s development birthed a phenomenon, a winner that has far exceeded in popularity anyone’s expectations.

img_0926img_0911Designed to have a summery sort of ambience, the attractions at Spruce Street Harbor Park have a limited run each year, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the powers that be are brainstorming ideas that would keep the park open most or all months. Yeah, more is better, guys! This year, SSHP’s season began in early May and will end on September 25. At the very least, why not open the gates in mid-April and close them in mid-October? Sounds like a plan to me. Anyway, the place was mobbed the night Sandy and I visited. With good reason. It has a low-key, breezy combination of things going for it, besides the groovy LED shafts whose color blips rise and fall regimentally.


img_0920img_1557There are hammocks dangling between trees; tables and chairs of different sizes and shapes scattered all around; a boardwalk lined with food shacks; craft beer stands; an indoor arcade; restaurants floating in the marina; a bocce court . . .  you get the picture. Among other pursuits, folks lounged, strolled, stuffed their faces and watched others lounge, stroll and stuff. And played their parts peacefully and politely. The nitwit factor at Spruce Street Harbor Park and the rest of Penn’s Landing and, come to think of it, in Old City, was nil that night. Do hypnotic lights amid semi-darkness induce commendable behavior? I don’t really know, but there might be something to that.


Alas, all good things that first Friday evening, for Sandy and me anyway, came to an end. To a train station in central Philadelphia we eventually proceeded. And, not long after that, at our abode’s doorstep, a mere handful of miles from one of the city’s borders, we arrived.

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(All photos, except that of the United States Custom House, by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

A Meditation On Pizza

Pizza, pizza, pizza. For how long have you been a part of my life? Why do I adore you so? Have my feelings about you changed over the years? And most importantly, where the heck can I find really good examples of you? These are questions I am about to answer. They also are questions to which I will return in future articles on this blog.

Some people write about politics or religion or nanomechanics. I have yet to address those and other heady subjects, and probably never will. I don’t have the smarts for that. I’m not too sure I have the wattage to say anything dynamic about pizza either, for that matter. I’m a preschooler compared to the Einsteins out there whose knowledge of and insights into the world of pies are dazzling. But I’m not embarrassed to lay out some thoughts and observations. Take it away, Neil.

Pizza is my favorite food and has been for 40 or so years. I grew up on Long Island, and it was there in the early 1960s that my pizza habit began. The habit grew, and somewhere in the early 1970s became pretty well an obsession. I was living on Long Island for part of that decade, and in Manhattan and Philadelphia at other times. In all of those locales the pizza was similar. I, and I’m sure most people, didn’t spend a lot of time discussing pizza in those days. Basically, you ate it and you liked it. There were only two varieties back then, regular (a round pie that I suppose now would be referred to as New York style) and Sicilian (a square pie whose crust was thicker and chewier than the regular pie’s). You could get mushrooms or pepperoni with the former if that was your wont.

By the late 20th century though, pizza became a complicated subject with a nomenclature that I can’t keep straight. New York style, Chicago style, Neapolitan, Margherita, thin crust . . . on and on it goes. And then there’s the whole matter of toppings. We live in an age when figs, pineapple, you name it, are fair game to bake atop a pie. For ease of discussion I’m going to keep this essay focused on the type of pizza I like best, the humble round darling composed of crust, cheese and tomato sauce. No toppings.

In the 1970s regular pizza seemed a-ok to me. It was chewy and floppy, often heavily laden with cheese and tomato sauce and usually dripping with oil. That variety is alive and well to this day. Its top makers, such as Di Fara (in Brooklyn) are truly famed. I’ve never had a Di Fara slice, but I gather that that establishment has taken the regular (aka New York style) pie to a new level, probably by using higher quality ingredients than those I grew up with. I wish that Di Fara would open a branch near me. While I wait two or three millennia for that to happen, I’ll instead continue to visit a couple of places in the Philly burbs that make New York style pizza similar to what I devoured years ago. The quality varies from visit to visit at these parlors, but I can’t complain too much. I like their wares fairly well overall, though I now have better alternatives.

There’s something about pizza that strikes a chord with my elemental self. It’s not a fussy or complicated product. The three main components seemingly were created to join blissfully together to make taste buds swoon. But as I’ve learned over the last 20 years, a great gastronomic marriage can become even greater. In other words, pizzas better than those I knew in my youth and middle age exist in this world. Di Fara’s baby is an example. In the USA, pizzas have reached rarified heights of deliciousness.

I’m not talking about all pizzas by any means. Most American pies still are very ordinary, maybe way too heavy on the cheese or cursed with a cardboard crust or hampered by an indifferent tomato sauce. However, new pizza orientations have taken hold in many establishments, and the one I’m especially all for is this: Thinner and charred crust. High quality cheeses and tomato sauce in balanced proportions. Oil in moderation, not cascading from each slice like a waterfall. This is not New York style pizza, though I’m a bit uncertain as to the name(s) it has been given by the pizza intelligentsia.

The above paragraphs are a long lead-in to my recent visit to Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza, a chain with a branch in Horsham, PA, not far from my home. My wife Sandy and I dropped in on a hot August Saturday night. We’d been there before, each previous visit knocking our socks off. I know of a few places in Philadelphia with pizzas that match my updated criteria for excellence. In the burbs, Anthony’s is the one and only that I’ve discovered.

Our lovely salad at Anthony's Coal Fired Pizza.
Our lovely Italian salad at Anthony’s Coal Fired Pizza.

Anthony’s has a small menu. I’d guess that pretty much everything on it is swell. Sandy and I, though, have had only the Italian salad and what Anthony’s calls its traditional pizza. Both are so good we order them again and again. The other night the salad was fine as usual. Crisp lettuce, chick peas, tomato and hard boiled egg wedges, all glazed with a tart light vinaigrette dressing. Simple and satisfying.

Our majestic pizza pie at Anthony's.
Our majestic pizza pie at Anthony’s.

The pizza came on a flat wood throne. Visually the pie was beautiful — you have to love those darkened areas, the basic color palette. Tastewise, beautiful too. The cheeses, mozzarella and romano, were earthy, the plum tomato sauce bright and lively. And the crust’s charcoal bite brought me joy. I’m an easy guy to please, given the right circumstances. At Anthony’s I was a happy eater. Good salad and superb pizza. And a hoppy brew to wash them both down, Arcadia Brewing Company’s Cheap Date Pale Ale. There was nothing more I needed or desired.

I’ve previously written about Capofitto, a fine joint in Philadelphia serving up blackened soul-satisfying pies. I know that pizza greatness extends far beyond Capofitto and Anthony’s. Fussy me will continue to search for pizzas way above the pedestrian, and will report back now and then as I discover them.

(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

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A Winning Dinner And A Fashionable Movie

Figuring out last minute Saturday night plans at home in the burbs recently, my wife and I were surprised to find dinnertime slots available on OpenTable for Capofitto, a hot newish Italian restaurant in Philadelphia’s wonderful Old City section. This is a place we’d read about when it opened last autumn. It sounded good and also intriguing, as it contains a ten ton pizza oven that was built by three Italian masons on site from bricks and other materials boated over from Italy. Clearly this is an establishment that takes its pizza seriously, which makes me smile. Quickly we made an OpenTable reservation, shot off to a suburban train station, and rode the rails into Philadelphia. After dinner we planned to catch a movie, Dior And I, at the Ritz Bourse art house cinema, one block from Capofitto. We silently congratulated ourselves for developing such an efficient plan for the evening.

Capofitto's dining room.
Capofitto’s dining room.

Capofitto (233 Chestnut Street) is a good looking place, fairly wide and very long, comfortable but not too fancy. Housed in a building about 115 years old, its modern décor somehow gives off the vibes of a traditionally-decorated Italian eatery. The restaurant is owned by Stephanie and John Reitano, who have placed a geletaria in the front room. This is understandable, as the Reitanos blessed Philadelphia earlier this century with a scattering of mucho popular gelato cafés. Capofitto expands the culinary parameters of the Reitano empire.

Icelandic White Ale
Icelandic White Ale

The first important question is: What beer did I order?  An Italian one would have been appropriate, but for the fact that Capofitto’s beer menu listed a brand I’d never heard of before, from a country I’d never given any thought to as a beer producer. Iceland of all places. Next time at this sweet restaurant I’ll drink Italian, but this night it had to be Einstök brewery’s Icelandic White Ale. This is a wheat beer whose label implies that the brewers toss orange peels and coriander into the vat. I noticed those flavors, but unexpectedly I also found a substantial hint of celery wafting up to my nostrils. Must have been the hops, weird dudes that can impart all manner of tastes and aromas to beer. Regardless, the ale had bite and was refreshingly bubbly and I liked it a lot.

Capofitto's pinoli salad and focaccia bread.
Capofitto’s pinoli salad and focaccia bread.

What then did we have for dinner? Pizza of course, preceded by a pinoli salad. Pinoli? That’s pine nuts to you and me. My wife and I shared both the salad and pizza. The salad was misnamed, being composed largely of shredded fennel and orange slices, and brought to life with a fine milky dressing and ricotta cheese. And with some toasted pinoli too. We thought much of the salad, though a lot more pinoli wouldn’t have hurt. With the salad came focaccia bread, very good indeed.

Our gorgeous pizza.
Our gorgeous pizza.

Our pie, a margherita to which we added salty black olives, was fabulous. The pie crust’s body was thin and crisp, its puffy rim chewy in a satisfying way. The entire crust was heat darkened and blistered here and there, the good quality wheat’s earthy flavor shining through. It’s not every pizza whose wheat catches your attention. My wife and I sighed contentedly as we munched away. This was one of the best pizzas I’ve had in recent years.

Capofitto's oak-burning pizza oven.
Capofitto’s oak-burning pizza oven.

The pizza oven, by the way, is a beauty. I looked it over for a few minutes. Capofitto feeds it wood, oak to be more precise, and it reaches very high temperatures, 900 degrees Fahreinheit or higher. Miraculously it bakes a pie in about 90 seconds.

Now, Capofitto has a large menu. Pizzas, salads, cold meats, cheeses, a few pasta dishes. I’d be surprised if most everything on it isn’t good to excellent. But after the pizza we were stuffed enough and didn’t eat anything more, not even the gelatos that brought the Reitanos their initial fame. We will return to Capofitto, at which time we’ll explore sections of the menu we didn’t get to. For now, on to the movie.

The poster for Dior And I outside the Ritz Bourse.
The poster for Dior And I outside the Ritz Bourse.

No one, most notably my wife, would describe me as a fashionisto. I am aware of trend-setting looks and high fashion, but the road sort of ends there. But like most anything, the world of high fashion, if explained and presented properly, will jump to life even for the mildly interested. At the Ritz Bourse my wife and I, as planned, watched Dior And I. Well-paced and well-developed, it is a documentary about the cloistered world of haute couture. It is very good, worth seeking out. Three out of four stars, I’d say.

Dior And I, directed by up and comer Frédéric Tcheng, follows the travails and successes of Raf Simons during the initial phase of his new job in 2012. For in April of that year, Simons, who had made his name in men’s fashion design, was hired by Paris’s world famous House of Dior as creative director for its women’s lines. Lucky Raf’s first big project began immediately. He had all of eight weeks to design and present Dior’s 2012 fall-winter haute couture collection. A snap, right?

The documentary begins with Raf’s first day at work, when he is introduced to the seamstresses and other staff now under his direction. Throughout the film Simons appears shy, which makes me wonder how he managed to rise to so high a creative and managerial position. Turns out that the House’s founder, Christian Dior, possessed traits similar to Simons’s. The private Dior was a reticent man, uncomfortable with the public demands of his occupation. Simons is aware of the founder’s bearings. On camera he says that he once began reading Dior’s memoir, only to put it down forever after a short while because he recognized too much of himself in Dior’s personality.

Wait, this is a spoiler alert: At the end Simons triumphs, a survivor of the strained nerves and pained expressions that accompanied him during his test by fire. The haute couture show, held on July 2, 2012 in a majestically flowered Parisian mansion, is a hit. There the movie ends. Today, almost three years later, Simons is still on the job. He undoubtedly has grown more comfortable in it.