A 20–minute drive from Penn's campus, past the tranquil greens of Fairmount Park, a small pizza shop is nestled between brick buildings in Strawberry Mansion. Down North Pizza, located on West Lehigh Avenue and North 28th Street, serves Detroit–style pizza in a casual environment—all while upholding its mission of employing formerly incarcerated individuals and preventing recidivism. The restaurant's refreshing take on deep–dish and its community involvement recently earned it a feature on the The New York Times' 2021 50 favorite restaurants list.
Although the restaurant is a little farther away than students tend to travel for a dinner outside of campus, Down North is certainly worth the trek. The prices are much more reasonable than the ones you typically see on Center City menus, meaning that the additional Uber costs won’t break the bank.
The restaurant was bright and airy the night I visited, with two friends as my dinner dates. We walked right up to the counter to place our order. Our stomachs grumbled as we waited for our food, aromas of tangy tomato sauce and pepperoni wafting to our seats at the counter. Customers, staff members, and even a friendly dog trickled through the doors, contributing to a feeling of community throughout the restaurant.
We ordered the Uptown Vibes pizza—a vegetarian option packed with kale, mushrooms, peppers, and onions—as well as the garlic parmesan wings and the spicy cheese fries.
The pizza crust was cooked perfectly: The edges were crispy and cheesy, while the base was chewy and spongy. The real standout was the sauce, which Down North calls “Norf” sauce—dark red, spicy, a little bit sweet, and spread in diagonal stripes over the pie. The veggies and cheese were well balanced, every bite bursting with flavor.
The wings were crispy but still well–coated in a garlicky sauce that we licked off our fingers after eating. The fries weren’t quite able to hold up their crisp due to their cheese sauce topping, but they were delicious nonetheless. The cheese sauce was creamy, with a slight spice coming through in the aftertaste. We washed our meal down with some house–made lemonade, which was refreshing and not overly sweet.
Our experience at Down North certainly lived up to the hype. Supporting the neighborhood favorite's meaningful mission only added to the satisfaction our meal provided.
On top of tasting the food, I also got the chance to chat with Muhammad Abdul–Hadi, Down North’s co–founder and owner, about the restaurant’s mission. Abdul–Hadi saw a need in Strawberry Mansion for a restaurant that would benefit the community, in contrast to “businesses that would come into the neighborhood and not give back to the neighborhood.”
The restaurant, which opened in March, exclusively hires individuals who were previously incarcerated, in line with its mission to provide opportunities for those whose lives have been impacted by the United States prison system. In addition to career development, Down North also helps provide housing and legal services.
“If you want to solve the problem, it’s not just one thing,” says Abdul–Hadi. “It has to be a plethora of resources that we provide.”
Housing discrimination is a major issue, he says, as landlords often won’t rent to those who have been previously incarcerated because of their backgrounds. This inability to rent often perpetuates a cycle of incarceration, as people are forced to go back to the “toxic environments that were sort of the reason they were in prison in the first place.”
Abdul–Hadi owns the floors above Down North, which he's turned into apartments for employees. There's also a nonprofit attached to the restaurant, the Down North Foundation, which has goals of planting sustainable gardens in North Philly and founding a community center that provides coding and gaming resources for youth in the area.
“Not everybody's going to go to college,” says Abdul–Hadi, “so we want to make sure that they are able to be employed.”
It’s also important to Abdul–Hadi that Down North is bringing people to a part of Philly that they otherwise might not experience.
“I think a lot of people haven’t been exposed to the conditions that are in that part of North Philadelphia. They really had no reason to come here,” he says.
By introducing more people to the neighborhood, Abdul–Hadi hopes that the restaurant will spark conversations about the inequality in the city that often leads to incarceration.
TL;DR: Come for the pizza, stay for the mission.
Location: 2804 W Lehigh Ave.
Hours: 12 p.m. until sold out Thursday–Sunday