Best of Philly 2008: The Best Philadelphian is Mary Seton Corboy

Mary Seton Corboy, Greensgrow

Photo courtesy Greensgrow Farm.

MARY SETON CORBOY IS just a farmer. A farmer in a faded Greensgrow Farm t-shirt and two right-handed gardening gloves. A farmer with a constant tan, and dirt permanently embedded under her fingernails. A farmer with business cards and a BlackBerry in the pocket of her fraying cargo shorts, even as she tends to the first of the season’s tomatoes.

If you’ve stopped to think about farmers recently  —  and be honest, you probably haven’t  —  you didn’t picture Mary, lean and tough at 50, her 12-hour workdays as likely to be filled with board meetings as beekeeping, her BlackBerry ringing with calls from Tony “Rolls,” who delivers Italian loaves for the farm’s twice-weekly market, and Mayor Nutter, who has studied Mary’s farming model. Because if you’ve stopped to think about farms recently  —  and maybe you have, hungry for August’s harvest of tomatoes and corn, blackberries and ­peaches  —  you didn’t picture Greensgrow, the single city block in once-industrial Kensington, just four miles from City Hall, where for 10 years Mary has been cultivating lettuce, tomatoes, and a new attitude toward food.

We need one. This is the era of the killer tomato (salmonella), killer spinach (e. coli) and killer food prices. The Greensgrow Philadelphia Project isn’t the only organization in the city addressing food safety and other topics that once seemed, at best, dryly academic. But this farm and its sarcastic farmer are a solution we can touch, an immediate, completely edible model of a sustainable food system.

  “It’s not like we’re happy that we’re in the situation we’re in, but … ” If you’re waiting for Mary to say “I told you so,” it’s not coming. The woman has work to do. “But it has all converged at a time when we can help solve the problems,” Mary says.

IT’S A SURPRISE, every time, to discover Greensgrow, just off of I-95, between the Applebees and Thriftways of Aramingo Avenue and the still-operating factories of York Street. The block is far from bucolic, with makeshift greenhouses and cinder-block-and-plywood structures, fenced in with eight-foot chain-link rimmed with barbed wire. But in a neighborhood of tightly packed rowhomes, an acre of open space is an unexpected luxury.

When political-scientist-turned-chef-turned-gardener Mary and her then-­business partner, Tom Sereduk, first saw the space more than a decade ago, it was a trash-strewn Superfund site, the former home of a galvanized steel plant. Still, the rent on the property, owned by the New Kensington Community Corporation, was just $150 a month. So this is where Mary and Tom would grow lettuce, gourmet greens to grace the plates of the city’s top restaurants, and pursue their goal of introducing more green businesses to Philadelphia. It was a crazy idea — Mary’s known for them, proud of them, and very often right about them — and it worked. The words “sustainable” and “green collar” might have been abstract, but the phrase “fresh vegetables” wasn’t. Thirteen varieties of tender lettuce grew hydroponically — oh, you thought a farm should have fertile soil? Ha! — on the sunny lot, flourishing in a system of rain gutters flushed with nutrient-rich water; the city’s restaurants, in the early stages of the “buy fresh, buy local” craze, purchased everything the farm could produce, 300 pounds a week.

Taste: Remember Shrimp Cocktail?

Maria Gallagher reviews Nineteen, the stunningly perched restaurant that's challenging an era of avant-garde cooking with back-to-the-classics seafood.

The architectural splendor and soothing champagne-and-cream color scheme at Nineteen put me in mind of fondant icing, Social Register soirees, and utterly proper good taste. This 19th-floor dining room, with its domed 36-foot ceiling, wedding-cake ornamentation, and north-facing view of Billy Penn silhouetted against the stars, is a refreshing oasis of calm with a menu of gently updated classics — and one of the loveliest settings in the city for a business lunch or leisurely dinner. Strands of oversized faux pearls that dangle from the chandelier above the raw bar keep the formal room from feeling stiff, and have provoked much debate — tacky or not? I say not. Think Coco Chanel.

Cutting-edge cuisine would be out of context in such surroundings. This space is tailor-made for grand gestures, like the one- and two-tier chilled seafood samplers ($49 and $79) that turn heads as they’re carried from the central raw bar to the table, or the no-frills-needed simplicity of a thick, perfectly seared salmon fillet. The tuna sashimi appetizer with yuzu cream sauce is an interloper next to the shrimp cocktail and littleneck clams on the half-shell. At the dear old Bellevue, locals will be more inclined to go old-school with appetizers, like Nineteen’s wonderful house-cured salmon dressed with simple sherry vinaigrette, minced herbs, and slices of braised purple artichoke, or the jumbo lump crabcake seasoned with Old Bay and bound with shrimp mousse. The crabcake is served with celery-root salad and tomato-pepper jam at dinner, or with a poached egg and lemony hollandaise at brunch.

Chef Marc Plessis has found a strategy for appeasing the conservative-leaning demands of hotel guests and his own fine-dining instincts; he chooses simple centerpieces, like the impressive raw bar and fresh fish, and keeps the flourishes that timid eaters fear on the side. You’ll get mignonette as well as cocktail sauce with your Chesapeake Bay and Cape Cod oysters, and something more exciting than roasted potatoes with your entrée. On my visits, fiddleheads accompanied a firm, meaty halibut fillet; fresh morels appeared with braised veal cheeks, and with the surprisingly light house-made ravioli filled with mashed fava beans. Vidalia onions were spotlighted in a silky caramelized-onion soup, lightly garnished with whipped cream. While the chef’s commitment to local farms and seasonal ingredients is gratifying, some of the applications need a tweak. Country ham added to the halibut dish came off as overly smoky and intrusive; undercooked fava beans accompanied the underseasoned wild striped bass.

The more serious flaw, evident on all of my review visits, was fumbling service. At this price point, it’s unacceptable for staffers delivering food to make customers tell them who ordered what. At brunch, we had to ask for water refills repeatedly, and a glass of wine arrived after the entrée was done. At dinner, I cringed as servers left the bottle on the table whenever they poured a Pepsi. And I’m still wondering who gave the order to have a fire blazing in the bar’s fireplace on a 90-degree day.

The $40 brunch includes a breakfast buffet, a raw bar, dim sum, an entrée, and a delightful dessert spread. Plessis, a stickler for freshness, decreed that there be no chafing dishes, so all hot items come straight from the kitchen. Dark-roast regular coffee brewed by the cup is outstanding, arriving with an espresso-like crema on the surface. But if you ask for a refill, your second cup will be a brewed-in-advance letdown.

Pastry chef Jason Etzkin’s chocolate confections are not to be missed. If you’re not entirely wedded to tradition, take a chance on his unorthodox deconstructed carrot cake, with a crunchy walnut cookie, a scoop of Philadelphia cream cheese sorbet, and a drizzle of sweet carrot sauce in a shade of orange so bright it almost hurts in this creamy vanilla room.

Taste: Trend: Healthy Pizza

Whole wheat pies get thumbs up from Oprah, Weight Watchers and South Beach. See inside for the tastiest local picks.

Whole wheat pies get thumbs up from Oprah, Weight Watchers and South Beach, but when tried-and-true area pizzerias pile their signature stuff on healthier crust, you’ll forget all that pizza-as-health-food silliness. It’s not a diet; it’s just delicious. (Eater beware: Most places mix white and wheat flours to achieve a balance of flavors and textures, so your pie may not be as healthy as it appears.)

Paolo Pizzeria
1336 Pine Street; 215-545-2482
The ingredients are fresh and the sauce is bright, accentuating the crispy, sturdy, thin crust with a tested-and-approved ratio of 85 percent whole wheat flour to 15 percent white flour.

738 Bethlehem Pike, Flourtown, 215-233-1063;
This classic Italian spot updates its vegetarian pie with a whole wheat crust from Sam’s Italian Market in Willow Grove, which uses a formula of about 50/50. Scoogi’s then layers on grilled veggies and a drizzle of balsamic reduction.

Mama Palma’s
2229 Spruce Street; 215-735-7357
This 11-year-old institution guarantees a great-tasting 100-percent whole wheat pie. The secrets? A European brick oven, dough made fresh daily, and creative topping combinations like Peking duck and brie.

Taste: Where We’re Eating August 2006

Clam Tavern
We can get so caught up in froufrou and foie gras that finding the completely unassuming, inexpensive and family-friendly Clam Tavern (339 East Broadway Avenue, Clifton Heights; 610-623-9537) — once we figured out where Clifton Heights is — was a relief. It’s fish. Lots of fish. Flying Fish on tap. Stuffed fish on the walls. Live fish in a huge tank. And, oh yeah, great fish on the plates. We keep going back for the buttery baked clams, served on one-of-a-kind custom steel plates, and the fried shrimp platter.

Cafe Apamate
Narrow Cafe Apamate (1620 South Street; 215-790-1620), with its sunset-orange walls, is both a Spanish coffee shop, offering three distinct hot chocolates (homemade churros optional, but highly recommended), and a continuous-service restaurant (closing before 9 p.m.). Choose a fresh, light cold sandwich, or a charred hot one. The De Pollo has cubed grilled chicken and a delicate, cheesy sauce. For breakfast: a classic tortilla Española. Service can be spacey, but the vibe is too charming for that to matter.

Brunch at Brasserie
Executive chef Chris Scarduzio continues to build onto Georges Perrier’s empire, adding a surprisingly casual, summer-only Sunday brunch at Brasserie Perrier. Brunch at Brasserie (1619 Walnut Street, 215-568-3000;; Sundays, 10:30 a.m.-3 p.m.) satisfies a Sunday morning craving for basic French flavors — quiche, escargots — but doesn’t neglect the big, sweet American appetite. A Belgian waffle is topped with berries, maple syrup and cinnamon-scented whipped cream. French toast gets bananas, more maple syrup and candied walnuts. There’s even an upscale take on scrapple.

Lucky Strike
All day long, two ear-pieced bouncers stand outside Lucky Strike (1336 Chestnut Street, 215-545-2471;, enforcing a dress code. (At lunch, it’s easy; the crowd trends more to laptops than ­extra-large t-shirts.) To those who pass inspection, the L.A.-born lounge/bowling alley offers a lengthy menu of dressed-up, but still mostly deep-fried, bar nibbles — the waitress will push the macaroni-and-cheese balls, a neon cheddar twist on the mozzarella stick. The food is unchallenging. But you came here to bowl. Bring on the cocktails, fresh-fried potato chips and ugly shoes.

“Gerenser’s Exotic Ice Cream” (22 South Main Street, New Hope; no phone), the faded sign announces. “Homemade.” That’s not entirely true. Although it reopened this summer for its 59th season after a flood-forced hiatus, the New Hope landmark has temporarily outsourced its ice cream and reined in its flavors. Once, there was Ukrainian rose petal and Puerto Rican banana brandy; now, there’s just the “Jersey Sunrise.” But until the ice-cream-making equipment is repaired, we’ll happily watch the sunrise: creamy vanilla ice cream, heavy with bing cherry halves, painted with wide streaks of fudge.

The Tastes of Summer: Spiked Watermelon

Miss those crazy college days? Graduate to more civilized party fun by spiking watermelons with wine instead of hundred-proof. See the recipe inside.

Miss those crazy college days? Graduate to more civilized party fun by spiking watermelons with wine instead of hundred-proof. Off-dry, unoaked whites like rieslings are a perfect match for sweet melon. Try Rosemount Estate’s yummy traminer/riesling blend, available in most stores.

To prepare:

1. Cut a hole in a ripe watermelon and insert a funnel.

2. Pour in as much wine as possible, and let it sit in the fridge, adding more wine every three to four hours as it’s slowly absorbed. (A 10-pound melon can soak up one standard bottle overnight.)

3. Slice the watermelon for a refreshing chilled party nosh, or freeze the flesh as a terrific base for blender drinks.

The Tastes of Summer: Pack a Picnic

Where to find the proper basket — and the perfect spot — to make your alfresco fest an occasion.

It’s the proper basket that makes a picnic an occasion. The fully loaded ones from Coatesville-based online retailer Picnic Playground ( cost about $69 and come with stainless steel utensils, melamine plates, wineglasses, a corkscrew and a cutting board.

Fill your handsome hamper from the amply stocked display cases at Di Bruno Bros. (1730 Chestnut Street, 215-665-9220;, and walk three blocks to Rittenhouse Square to savor the haul. Or you could tote your moveable feast and blanket (or folding chair) to the Mann Center for the Performing Arts (5201 Parkside Avenue, 215-893-1999;, where a Philadelphia Orchestra serenade costs a mere $10 for lawn seating.

But no shopping or packing is required for picnicking guests at the elegant Woolverton Inn (6 Woolverton Road, Stockton, 609-397-0802; For $100, innkeeper Carolyn McGavin provides a cooler backpack (yours to keep) and a generous lunch for two that includes antipasti, salad, a choice of sandwiches (make ours the Max & Me smoked salmon BLT), home-baked cookies or brownies, and wine. Enjoy it on the grounds, or rent bikes ($95 for two) and pedal four miles along the towpath to the nature trail at the Bull’s Island recreation area.

Summer Food: The Tastes of Summer: Rosé

Throughout warm regions of France and Spain, café tables are dotted with rosé-colored glasses. And why not? Few wines have the summer-food-loving versatility of dry rosé, with the chill-able freshness of white wine and the turbo-boosted flavor of red. Try spicy southern French wines like Jaboulet’s Parallele 45 rosé or DuBoeuf’s syrah rosé, or classics from Provence, like Château Mont-Redon and Commanderie de la Bargemone. Italy’s Vitiano rosé by Falesco and Argentina’s Rosé of Malbec by Susanna Balbo suit more modern sensibilities. Leery about sweetness? Check the alcohol content; 12 percent or higher suggests a dry style.

Eat This Now: Grits

The first time chef Alison Barshak drove to the World Grits Festival in St. George, South Carolina, she returned to her Blue Bell BYOB with 150 pounds of coarse organic hominy grits. The next year, she trucked 200 pounds more than 600 miles. And this year, she loaded her car with 300 pounds of the fresh-ground corn. “I like grits better than other starches, like polenta,” Barshak says. “They

The first time chef Alison Barshak drove to the World Grits Festival in St. George, South Carolina, she returned to her Blue Bell BYOB with 150 pounds of coarse organic hominy grits. The next year, she trucked 200 pounds more than 600 miles. And this year, she loaded her car with 300 pounds of the fresh-ground corn. “I like grits better than other starches, like polenta,” Barshak says. “They have more personality and more rustic corn flavor.” The classic Southern recipe may be equal parts milk-boiled grits and salty butter, but Barshak pairs the sunny starch with black truffle butter to create earthy, oversized fried croutons that soak up the garlicky broth beneath her steamed clams.

Alison at Blue Bell, 721 Skippack Pike, Blue Bell, 215-641-2660;

Taste: Almost Osetra

With the export ban on Caspian Sea caviar extended, here's what you'll find in its place on area menus.

The ban on the export of caviar from the Caspian Sea has been extended indefinitely. As local stockpiles run out, caviar connoisseurs will start to notice variations of the pricey delicacy on area menus.


Most often imported from Uruguay or Israel, this caviar comes from farm-raised sturgeon and mimics the roe — and the $75-to-$90-an-ounce cost — of the Caspian’s osetra caviar.
Where to try it: Philly-based distributor Caviar Assouline ( sells both kinds.


Produced in Tennessee and Kentucky, this $20-an-ounce American sturgeon caviar, with its small gray pearls, is the best substitute for strong-flavored Caspian sevruga.
Where to try it: At Atlantic City’s Red Square (the Quarter at the Tropicana, South Brighton Avenue and the Boardwalk; 609-344-9100), paddlefish caviar tops the popular clams Khrushchev, a plate of baked clams topped with parmesan bread crumbs and pancetta.


From the shovelnose sturgeon of Mississippi, this $20-an-ounce black caviar with large berries has the buttery, nutty flavor of the Caspian’s osetra.
Where to try it: Striped Bass (1500 Walnut Street, 215-732-4444; serves hackleback as an appetizer, with all the traditional caviar flourishes.


Faux-luga, a nutty, soy-based $7.50-an-ounce “caviar,” has the large gray pearls and distinctive crunch of Russian beluga.
Where to try it: Derek Davis uses faux-luga to garnish omelets and soups and to dress up an appetizer of fingerling potatoes and sour cream at Manayunk’s Derek’s (4411 Main Street, 215-483-9400;

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