By KATHY MATHESON
2014-04-15 11:42 PM
PHILADELPHIA (AP) -- Tourism officials will tell you the restaurant-rich area at the heart of downtown is called Midtown Village, but that moniker hasn't entirely caught on with the locals.
The good news is that it doesn't matter what you call it. Philadelphia food-lovers just know 13th Street -- which runs through the center of the neighborhood -- as a vibrant area chockfull of great eateries and wine bars, a place to get anything from artisanal pizza and gourmet vegan to Asian fusion and modern Indian. And don't forget the freshly made prickly-pear gelato for dessert.
While the city boasts many foodie destinations -- from Fishtown in the north to East Passyunk in the south -- Midtown Village is the most centrally located, sitting in the shadow of City Hall between the Liberty Bell and tony Rittenhouse Square.
The once-seedy 13th Street corridor has been transformed in recent years in part through the efforts of chef Marcie Turney and her partner Valerie Safran. Their portfolio of restaurants, upscale gift shops and grocery store became core elements of the casually hip district.
Among their properties: Perpetually popular Barbuzzo, which offers a Mediterranean kitchen and bar; Jamonera, a Spanish wine bar with an extensive sherry list; and the relatively new Italian dining room Little Nonna's. Their innovative take on Mexican food, Lolita, was scheduled to reopen in April after undergoing renovations.
Another Mexican outpost is the hard-to-miss El Vez, a gregarious emporium from hometown restaurateur Steven Starr. And across the street is the eye-catching Sampan and its semi-hidden Graffiti Bar, both offering a contemporary Asian menu from chef Michael Schulson.
Nearly all the eateries offer outdoor seating, which makes for crowded, lively sidewalks. It also eases the seating crunch at tiny places like Zavino, an informal pizzeria and wine bar that boasts some of the city's best pies.
Favorites include the "Stache" (whole-wheat crust with pistachio pesto, mozzarella, Parmesan, lemon vinaigrette and baby arugula) and the "Joey" (sausage, mozzarella, crushed tomato, spinach, garlic, provolone and chili flakes). Zavino also offers a small selection of homemade pasta and noshes like charcuterie and olives.
Thirsty? Duck into historic McGillin's Olde Ale House, one of the nation's oldest taverns, where the walls are filled with Philly-oriented memorabilia, beer collectibles and liquor licenses dating back to the 19th century. Or try the much younger Bru, a German beer hall specializing in Bavarian cuisine. Both have entrances on tiny Drury Street, just off 13th between Sansom and Chestnut.
For dessert, try Marcie Blaine Chocolates tucked in the back of the Verde gift shop -- both of which are Turney/Safran enterprises. Or head to Capogiro gelato.
Capogiro specializes in small batches that use seasonal ingredients, so don't be surprised by concoctions like lemon opal basil sorbetto. You're allowed to combine flavors in a single cup; be sure to take advantage of the free tastings before you mix and match. Hint: If it's available, orange-cardamom pairs wonderfully with milk chocolate. Mmmmmm.
Farther down 13th Street, toward the neighborhood affectionately known as the Gayborhood, you'll hit the upscale Indian restaurant Indeblue. When you get to Locust Street, you'll find Little Nonna's; well-reviewed Nomad Pizza; and Vedge, the acclaimed vegan restaurant helmed by "Chopped"-winning chef Rich Landau. Fans say you won't even miss the meat and dairy because the flavors are so tantalizing.
If You Go...
MIDTOWN VILLAGE, PHILADELPHIA: http://www.midtownvillage.org
TURNEY/SAFRAN RESTAURANTS AND SHOPS: http://13thstreetphilly.blogspot.com/
CAPOGIRO: 119 S. 13th St., http://www.capogirogelato.com
ZAVINO: 112 S. 13th St., http://www.zavino.com
McGILLIN'S: 1310 Drury St., http://www.mcgillins.com
VEDGE: 1221 Locust St., http://www.vedgerestaurant.com
Follow Kathy Matheson at www.twitter.com/kmatheson