Rittenhouse Square rife with culinary, cultural pursuits

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While millions of tourists rightly pay homage to America's birthright by visiting the Liberty Bell, the National Constitution Center and the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia's historic district, a mile or so up the main stem a posh neighborhood once known for its exclusivity has become a popular destination for out-of-towners in quest of classy lodgings, epicurean delights and cultural enrichment.

The neighborhood in question encompasses the residential and commercial thoroughfares around and about beautiful Rittenhouse Square, one of five original quads designed by William Penn for his 1,200-acre "great towne" in 1683 and today an oasis of green and tranquility in the heart of the city.

Originally known as Southeast Square and serving as a pasture for stray cows, pigs and chickens, in 1825 the park was named for David Rittenhouse, who was at once an astronomer, clock maker and the first director of the U.S. Mint.

It wasn't long before the adjacent Rittenhouse Square neighborhood evolved into a fashionable and prestigious address for the city's upper crust. In the early 20th century, the park was redesigned by Paul Phillipe Cret, a noted Philadelphia architect and city planner.

The Rittenhouse Square visitors see today is pretty much as he envisioned it -- that is, if you discount Frisbee-catching dogs, picnicking office workers on their lunch break and iPod-wearing joggers resting on a weathered wooden park bench.

Also, the park is a welcoming meeting ground for locals and visitors alike as well as the site of glorious flower markets, exhibitions of all kinds and eclectic art shows.

Top-notch digs

Immediately constrained by Walnut Street, 18th and 20th streets, Locust and Spruce, Rittenhouse Square is bounded by handsome two- and three-story rowhouses, art-deco high rises and an occasional modern tower of concrete and glass, an eclectic mix of American architecture that includes luxury hotels among the more than 10 properties that call the larger neighborhood home.

The top-of-the-line lodgings include the Rittenhouse, a condo-hotel that commands an impressive view of the park (see story, Page 50); the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia, several blocks away at One Logan Square; the Westin, at 17th Street at Liberty Place; and the Ritz-Carlton, a bit more distant at 10 Avenue of the Arts.

Those who prefer the intimacy of a bed and breakfast can opt for the 16-room, European-style Rittenhouse 1715 just off the park.

The Rittenhouse Park neighborhood is a foodie's paradise, with restaurants and gourmet shops running from haute cuisine to trendy to high-style takeout (or any combination of the three).

Fine dining is well represented by Lacroix, the Rittenhouse's signature room. Matthew Levin runs the kitchen there, having taken over the reins from the restaurant's namesake, Chef Jean-Marie Lacroix, in June 2006. Cited as the "Best New Restaurant in the U.S." by Esquire magazine in 2003 and still going strong, Lacroix features a unique "plat-style" dinner menu, which allows the choice of any three, four or five dishes and includes a selection of 20 artisanal cheeses.

Wine, cheese and beer

And when it comes to cheeses and more, two standouts, Tria, at 123 South 18th St., and DiBruno Bros. Rittenhouse Square, at 1730 Chestnut St., are worth a visit.

Tria celebrates the art and science of fermentation, so the focus of this informally chic boite, naturally, is on beer, wine and cheese. The excellent cheese selection at Tria comes from Murray's in New York. The wines, all available by the glass, include hard-to-find vintages organized into what Tria calls "user-friendly" categories.

The wide variety of handcrafted draft and bottled beers ranges from Belgian brews to closer-to-home ales and lagers. It is worth noting that most items on the menu, which include a selection of bruschetta, grilled panini, salads and desserts, are priced at less than $10 each. This place is good, inexpensive and deservedly popular, so it is not surprising that the line for dinner forms early on the street.

DiBruno Bros., the upscale offshoot of the homey original in Philadelphia's Italian Market, is a gourmet's delight, offering fine cheeses -- 500 varieties stored in a temperature-controlled, 300-square-foot cheese cave -- charcuterie, smoked fish, caviar, coffees, pasta and prepared dishes. A coffee/espresso bar and an attractive cafeteria-style cafe cater to folks who want to eat and shop at the same time.

Out for a stroll? Gelato, the lower-fat Italian version of ice cream, has its own walk-in emporium at Capogiro Gelato, located at 117 South 20th St., where husband and wife entrepreneurs Stephanie and John Reitano create unheard-of frozen desserts redolent of cardamom, cilantro, calvados and watermelon among other unusual ingredients.

Nuts to You, at 24 South 20th St., is not looking for accolades based on style or panache. This small shop is crammed with bins of nuts, candies and seeds. Among what seems to be an unlimited stock are raw, smoked, sliced and blanched almonds; Bulgarian Ladynail pumpkin seeds; powerfully flavored pistachios imported from Turkey or their larger, blander cousins from California; and light-, medium- and dark-roasted peanuts in their shells.

Also worth noting are Monk's Cafe, at 16th and Spruce Streets, where steamed mussels, frites and more than 200 beers of the world attract full-house lunch and dinner crowds; the Bellini Grill (220 South 16th St.), a family-run Italian restaurant featuring homemade pasta; and Alma de Cuba (1623 Walnut St.), noted for its Cuban-style menu and great mojitos.

Cradle of culture

As for culture, the opportunities abound, what with the Rosenbach Museum & Library, the Civil War and Underground Railway Museum, the Curtis Institute of Music, the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts, the Philadelphia Art Alliance, the Mutter Museum, the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and the Academy of Vocal Arts. All are within walking distance of the park.

Of these, the occasionally overlooked Rosenbach, at 2008-2010 Delancey Place, merits special attention.

The institution includes the original 1865 brick townhouse home of the brothers Rosenbach, A.S.W. and Philip. Collectors and dealers, the Rosenbachs assembled a remarkable trove of rare books, manuscripts and artwork.

Highlights are the 800-page, hand-written manuscript of James Joyce's Ulysses; Lewis Carroll's copy of the 1865 edition of "Alice in Wonderland"; a baseball autographed by Mickey Mantle from the collection of poet Marianne Moore; and more than 10,000 works of author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, who chose the museum to the be repository of his output.

Although all visits are conducted by docents, the Rosenbach is remarkably open to those who want individual access to research the collection. "All you need is the interest and expressed desire to examine something in the collection," one docent said. "That is all the accreditation we demand."

For more information, go to www.gophila.com and www.philadelphiausa.travel.

To contact reporter Joe Rosen, send e-mail to [email protected].

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For more details on this article, see "Rittenhouse takes pride in its independence."

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