For far too long, my life has been over-booked, over-planned, over-scheduled. I rarely have a day that isn’t at least partially planned, with a “to do” list, and a series of jobs I want to accomplish. I end most days feeling like a failure because I make lists that are too long to finish in a week, and then expect myself to do everything by dinnertime.
But this week, there were a series of experiences that simply landed, plop!, in the middle of my over-planned schedule. Two beloved young friends are getting married this weekend, and I decided – and this is also entirely unlike me – to spend a day shopping for a new dress, makeup — whatever felt right as I prepared to go to this wedding. I hate clothes shopping. I mean, hate, clothes shopping. I have clothes in my closet from when I was in high school, I actually have a dress hanging in the closet that I wore to the First Quaker City Rock Festival at the Spectrum here in Philadelphia. (Lineup: Moby Grape, The Chambers Brothers, Big Brother and the Holding Company – with Janis, Vanilla Fudge and……Buddy Guy.) My closet looks like a vintage clothing store.
So, anyway, buying a dress for this wedding shows how much I adore the couple getting married. I went to my car – which had been sitting in the parking lot for a month, since I’ve been working on several big writing projects and not traveling much. The left rear tire was almost entirely flat. The right rear tire was low. What to do?
I drove on it. Took the car to 11th Street Auto — which by the way is the BEST garage to go to if you live in Center City. I love those guys. Diagnosis: dry rot. “If you don’t drive the car much, and let it sit for long periods, this is going to happen,” Frank, the owner told me. So – the first unexpected thing of the week, and not a very welcome one — I needed two new tires. They filled me up with air for the shopping trip, but ordered two tires so that I wouldn’t have a blow out driving to the wedding on Saturday. (Yes, I did shop. I survived. Even found a nice dress.)
But here’s the good thing that happened when my plans for the week got shot full of holes – when I brought the car back to replace the tires, I wandered around that part of the city, waiting for them to do the job. I walked down Christian Street, looking for someplace to grab a sandwich or something, so that I could eat and write while I was waiting — because, you know, God forbid I shouldn’t WORK. What I found instead was 9th and Christian – and then the entire stretch of 9th Street, where the stores and street vendors were amazing. The Italian Market! I hadn’t been to 9th Street since I was about 8 years old, staying with my great aunt. She drove us into South Philly to meet up with her sister-in-law, Lena, who lived at 9th and Wilder. We wandered the markets of 9th Street, and, being a little suburban kid from Marple Township (think split level developments, something like the development in “Edward Scissorhands”), I had never seen anything like it. Back then, pretty much all of 9th Street (as far as I remember) was Italian. Now, there are Italian, Hispanic and Vietnamese storekeepers,. There are what we used to call 5 & 10 cent stores when I was a kid. There were butchers and poulterers, produce stands, sneakers stores, a book and record store, kitchenwares, cheese stores, spice shops, pasta stores, a florist, coffee shops, pizza shops. I met a woman from Tennessee who was there with her son. She told me, “I buy everything I can here and take it back with me to Tennessee, including the bacon!” That has to be some sort of Southern blasphemy, right?…buying your pork products in Philadelphia?
So…on this first accidental visit to 9th Street, I went to Fante’s, the kitchenwares store, which has an incredible supply of cooking tools and products – and a wonderful, friendly staff. I got a great lesson in the differences between pasta machines – and I’m going to go back and buy one. For this trip, I bought a simple ravioli-making set, just like the one my late mother-in-law used to use.
I shopped in Claudios, an amazing store filled with everything from fresh-made pasta, to charcuterie, cheeses, to pickled vegetables and olives, to a variety of olive oils, pestos, and other sauces. They sell wine. I bought some gnocchi and 2 lbs of spinach tagliatelle — plus a 2 lb jar of Pesto Genovese.
And then…..to the Italian Pastry store – Isgro’s, where I bought a key lime tart, a baba-rum pastry (soaked in rum and honey and stuffed with Italian cream), and a Marzapane eclair. And, no, I won’t eat them all at once…but yes, I am going to eat them.
The pastry store was a little price-y – but certainly not out of line with what you would pay for a high-quality Italian pastry in a restaurant. Probably a few dollars less. (And believe me, these are high-quality Italian pastries!) Claudio’s wasn’t out of line for its prices of high-quality pasta and pesto, either. The cheese prices looked to be in line with what I see in grocery stores, and they were really high-quality.
The ravioli-making set was $17. It’ll last a lifetime, or two. Maybe more.
One thing to keep in mind if you are planning to shop here: many of the stores are cash only. The vendors are almost entirely cash only. Some of the restaurants only take cash. Fante’s, Claudio’s, DiBrunos took credit cards. But be aware that you might need cash when you head to 9th Street.
I certainly plan to go back. It was fun. It was full of life. It was a great place to find good food and nice people. This is not news to most people who live in downtown Philadelphia — almost everyone has at least heard of 9th Street, or “the Italian Market”. But if, like me, you haven’t explored it, you should absolutely plan to go. I’d say try a weekday rather than weekend, when it is probably packed with people. A weekday, late morning, was a perfect time. There were plenty of people, but nothing was crowded. People lounged at outdoor tables at the coffee shops and restaurants. Shopkeepers struck up conversations with you. People stopped on the sidewalk and talked. There was even a group of young artists from Moore who were sitting on the sidewalk sketching the street scenes, as eager to capture the great feeling here as I was!
More than anything, this surprise adventure reminded me of something important: don’t overplan. Let life happen. Make room for the surprises – because even the annoying ones (tires with dry rot) might lead to some wonderful ones (ravioli-making equipment and Italian pastry.)
I was reminded recently that Italians have a phrase: dolce far niente, which means the pleasure of doing nothing…or delicious idleness. Try it. Some of the best things might happen in those unplanned moments.