Market to Market
To market, to market
A plaque was unveiled at Ninth and Christian Friday, declaring The Italian Market historic.
By Caitlin Meals
Posted Oct. 18, 2007
Businessman Victor L. Baldi, of the Victor L. Baldi Funeral Home on Broad Street, assists in the unveiling of the historic marker at the Italian Market Friday. (Photo by Greg Bezanis)
As culinary icon Rachael Ray bit into the tender Chicken Sicilian at Villa di Roma Restaurant, 936 S. Ninth St., as part of her "$40 a Day" excursion to Philadelphia for the Food Network, she probably wasn't thinking just outside those doors Sylvester Stallone was tossed an orange as he jogged down the street in "Rocky" more than a quarter-century ago.
But the 11-block span of Wharton to Fitzwater streets has had its fair share of brushes with fame, even though many vendors and locals call it "the best kept secret in Philly" for the unexpected treasures that line its shelves and grace its storefronts.
The secret seemingly has been let out as The Italian Market, as it is commonly known, garnered historic status and had a seven-foot-high marker unveiled on the corner of Ninth and Christian streets Friday by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, solidifying its prominence as the oldest open-air market in the country.
Similar in appearance to the markers that dot the city landscape, the newest addition -- whose initiative was started by local historian Celeste Morello 12 years ago -- recognizes the obstacles the market has overcome, including "anti-immigrant sentiments" and "criticisms regarding sanitary conditions and traffic congestion," to evolve "from a local community market to become a popular Philadelphia icon" as the blue-and-yellow plaque titled "South 9th Street Curb Market" reads. The name was chosen over "The Italian Market" because, when founded, the site represented a number of immigrant cultures, commission Executive Director Barbara Franco said.
Several speakers -- including Morello, who nominated the area for the marker; Franco; and state Sen. Vincent Fumo -- echoed the significance of the market that draws shoppers from all over for produce, meats, cheeses, baked goods, cooking equipment, jewelry, makeup and sporting goods, to name a few. But there is more than choice to its appeal.
"The price," Irene McCarthy of Rittenhouse Square said of what brings her to the spot. "The price and the variety."
McCarthy visits the market monthly, mainly buying from Esposito's Meats, 1001 S. Ninth St., and Giordano, Ninth and Washington Avenue, where the going rates are cheaper than the supermarkets, she said. This remains true to the market's old ways, having been created to "counter high prices and food shortages during WWI," according to the new sign.
But its significance in Philadelphia's history elevates the market beyond a fair-priced tourist stop.
"I think it represents what the old-world shopping experience was," 1st District Councilman Frank DiCicco said prior to the marker's unveiling. "It offers something you don't get in supermarkets -- this one-on-one relationship with owner-operated businesses where you get to meet and interact with the owner."
DiCicco said the market has garnered national significance and, while the merchants and vendors aren't primarily Italian as they once were, Ninth Street still offers immigrants -- especially those from Mexico -- products they had access to in their native countries, but are hard to come by stateside.
For each of the more than 3,000 historical markers in Pennsylvania -- with only about 32 approved each year -- a member of the community must nominate a spot, Franco said. "It really is about citizen participation," she added.
After submitting several requests and waiting more than a decade, Morello and Franco determined the spot's historical value through newspaper clippings, testimonies from the Ninth Street Businessmen's Association and letters Morello received from outlets like the National Geographic Channel, which ran a special on Ninth Street, and an economics professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, who cited the market's national reputation as a venue for farmers outside the city. The two also determined what the text should read by focusing on the market's origins.
Although there are many significant aspects to the market -- its food, sustainability, tourism and diversity -- Franco said it is also one of the last of a once-complex system of markets. According to Morello, about 40 other markets once existed throughout the city, but the Italian Market's longevity stems from the variety offered in such a dense space and action by the merchants, who applied for a corporation seal.
The history of the Italian Market dates back to early-20th century, with the official Web site offering an age of more than 100 years old. The area was inhabited by immigrants upon its founding, mostly Italian, with many living above the shops that served as their livelihood. There was variety available to the masses then, too, but the ethnic diversity wasn't as strong as it is today, Charlie Esposito, who's worked at Giordano in the market for 18 years, said.
"They've turned over a lot," he said of the types of stores in the market. "It's not like it used to be. The vendors have changed. A lot of old Italian people, their families grew up, the kids went to college and got better jobs. So now you have a variety of vendors -- Koreans, Vietnamese, Spanish, Mexicans -- when at one time it was mainly Italian.
"There's never a bad change," the former resident of Seventh and Wharton streets who now lives in the Northeast said. "Customers still come; customers still go."
Today, more than 100 merchants, including four cheese stores, seven meat markets, four fish mongers, two pasta manufacturers, four poultry stores and more than 40 produce vendors make up the stores where shoppers can savor the tastes of Italy, France and California.
Among the expected offerings, the market holds some distinctive surprises. Caseificio Claudio, 925 Carpenter St., opened four summers ago, bringing the first mozzarella machine of its kind to the United States, Roxanne Auriemma, 52, wife of owner Sal, 49, said. The front of the store was boarded up to keep the secrets of the device from leaking out.
"Who knew one little ball of cheese could cause this much commotion?" she joked, adding visitors come to the shop just to see the large metal contraption that churned out 100,000 pounds of mozzarella last year with its crater-like dips. "It cost more than my first house, but it's pretty neat. From what I've heard this is a big draw for [visitors]. "
Emilio Mignucci of DiBruno Brothers, 930 S. Ninth St., was on hand to represent the Ninth Street Businessmen's Association, and felt honored to be a living part of the market's history.
"This plaque is really in honor of those before me," he said. "The first generation that came down, the second generation that really solidified what the market was all about and me as a third-generation DiBruno, I felt like I have some big shoes to fill.
"I think [the market has] done wonders for our community, and it's my hope that it will still be here another two and three and four generations from now."
Shoppers Antti and Vappu Seppala stopped to watch the dedication. Born in Finland and living in France for a number of years before moving to the area four years ago, the 65- and 63-year-old, respectively, said they travel from Conshohocken for the familiar atmosphere the market offers.
"I find that what is available here has a good quality -- there's a big selection of cheeses, especially at DiBruno Brothers and Claudio," Antti said, noting the similarities of the market to what they found in Europe.
The couple agreed from what they've gathered in chatting with merchants, the area has definite historical significance.
"All the shops and businesses, they have been here for more than 100 years. It's long overdue," Antti said of the marker.