It’s hard to admit this, but the most notable recent happening on the Philadelphia pasta front was a tweet from 2011. “At Eataly in New York,” Marc Vetri teased. “I mean seriously, it’s packed to the gills. Could this work in Philly? Because we are ready to bring it, if you are.”
You hardly need a status update on that one. New Yorkers are standing slack-jawed before mounds of fresh prosciutto/mortadella/parmesan ravioli, coils of fresh kamut spaghetti, trays of handmade white truffle agnolotti … and Philadelphia has a six-foot-long fresh-pasta counter at the South Street Whole Foods.
But console yourself with this knowledge: There’s still retail pasta worth buying in Philly—and at a fraction of Eataly’s prices. You can shop well, you can buy well, and, ultimately, you can eat well. It’s not as easy as it could be (or should be). It’s just a matter of matching shopping list to store.
Where stuffed pastas are concerned, the South Street Whole Foods is actually worth checking out. It stocks ravioli, gnocchi and the like from Westmont, New Jersey's Severino Pasta Company—fresh, not frozen, so you can count on smooth dough and creamy (rather than brittle and grainy) cheese fillings, with no freezer burn. Severino also puts out some worthy seasonal treats, like pumpkin tortelloni, which makes return visits and frequent scouting trips to Whole Foods worthwhile.
Fresh pasta noodles are easier to find. Moving beyond the old standby P&S raviolis, a handful of places cut their pasta to order from large sheets. The old Italian Market classics are Superior Pasta and Talluto’s—which sells a lovely saffron variety, plus luscious fresh ricotta ravioli. But for plain egg noodles, your dollar goes twice as far at Matteo’s (South Philly), which sells them for $2.75 a pound. (Their ricotta cavatelli also weathers the freezer nicely. Just so you know.)
And don’t let the profusion of freezer cases bring you down, because you can rediscover the joys of dry pasta all over again at Di Bruno Bros.’ South Philly location. This place excels in the offbeat-flour department, from chestnut tagliatelle to farro penne to rice spaghetti. Claudio Specialty Foods (Italian Market) is my favorite for eye-catching shapes: kinky mafaldini, helical fidanzati, and the meter-long pipes of zitoni my two-year-old adores because they’re taller than he is.
Which, let’s face it, not even Eataly could beat.
Still, to find Philly’s best noodle bargain, you’ll need to think a little bit outside the box. Chinatown's East Asia Noodle Co. looks like a warehouse off-limits to foot traffic and the curiosity of freelance noodle hunters, but inside, they happily sell fresh egg noodles and lo mein (translation: wheat noodles) to walk-in customers for 70 cents a pound.
These noodles are great, and if you can get past your border-crossing noodle fusion prejudices, they can flatter a bolognese sauce just as readily as a dan dan noodle recipe. The only real complication is that you’ll need a crowd to feed, since the folks behind the counters at East Asia usually enforce a five-pound minimum. So you may have to shell out $3.50 and then forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown.