The shops, businesses, and curbside vendors that line 9th Street—better collectively known as the “Italian Market”—have been a hallmark of South Philadelphia for over 100 years. The Italian Market is open every day of the week and offers a vast array of food products, including fresh produce, cheeses, meats, and seafood that color the outdoor stands and street–side stores during the early hours of the day. Local restaurant gems and specialty stores that sell items like pasta, spices, and baked goods are also an integral part of the South Philly food shopping hub.
The Italian Market remained largely operational during the past few years of the COVID–19 pandemic, with many vendors continuing to sell their groceries outdoors, but other economic challenges have persisted— many of which predate the tumultuous years since 2020. While some of the communities and businesses that vitalize 9th Street have come and gone, the rich cultural and culinary history that has been built across generations continues to be an important part of Philadelphia’s legacy.
In the late 1800s, communities of Southern Italian, Jewish, Irish, and Lebanese immigrants began to move into the areas surrounding 9th Street in South Philadelphia. The first businesses established by these communities date back as early as the first decade of the 20th century, and by the 1960s, the Italian Market had grown into a popular tourist destination. Korean, Mexican, Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, and Chinese immigrants also began to move and set up shops in the '80s, further contributing to the city’s diverse culinary landscape.
The Italian Market is now the oldest continuously operating open–air market in the country. A collection of nearly 200 individual businesses are housed across 20 city blocks, a number of which have been passed down their family lines for generations. For instance, P&F Giordano’s—the curbside fruit and produce stand marked by its iconic green banner at the corner of 9th Street and Washington Ave—has been running since 1921. And Tortilleria San Roman, a brick–and–mortar storefront established in 2009, was the first tortilleria opened in Philadelphia.
Grassia’s Italian Market Spice Co. is another longtime staple at the Italian Market. Founded in 1932, the family–owned and operated business has sold its spice blends in Philly for decades. Sabatina Grassia, owner of the company, says that it took two families and the overcoming of some serious barriers to bring Grassia’s over to the 21st century. In 1999, Grassia had bought the company from her cousin who had been running the business for twenty years prior, and she's been operating her family’s spice company ever since. But more than just being a business owner in the market, Grassia has a strong connection to the South Philly neighborhood where she was born and raised.
Grassia is a first–generation immigrant, and growing up near the Italian Market, she's been able to see its changes and developments over the years first–hand. She specifically recalls two key aspects of her childhood: the bustling market, and the diverse communities in South Philly that lived and worked there. Grassia says the narrative that 9th Street only recently became diverse isn’t true; Since the '70s when she was in grade school and the '80s when she entered high school, there were always families from different ethnic and racial backgrounds that were an integral part of the neighborhood.
In terms of her business, the things that have changed drastically for Grassia’s Italian Market Spice Co. can’t be removed from the COVID–19 pandemic. “It was very hard for me,” Grassia shares, “I could employ about five to six people, and right now I'm down to one employee … I can't afford many people. So that in itself is limiting.” Grassia found herself having to be closed for several months, and decided to venture into selling at farmers' markets when she couldn’t open up the shop. More recently, she mentions that the challenge has been getting her supply of spice products, which are much higher in price than before. “The want is still there from … my regular customers,” Grassia says, “[but] I’m having trouble fulfilling their needs as well as [bringing] in new customers.”
Many of the businesses on 9th Street have amended their hours to be closed on certain days and hours in the past two years, but Grassia says the market has also been shifting to a "Shop from Home" model. As an organization, the Italian Market offers the delivery service Mercato, and other stores have also utilized online platforms like UberEats. “I do see the foot traffic itself has slowed down because of that,” Grassia says. She's noticed an observable decrease in the number of people shopping at the market, with many customers working from home and making their purchases online.
Although there may not be as many people moving through the Italian Market as there once were, Grassia remains hopeful—especially with the annual festival coming up. The Italian Market Festival, ”Philadelphia’s Largest Block Party,” is set to return on May 21–22, 2022. “It's two days of the year that our market shines,” she says. The festival is not only an exciting event that includes members of the neighborhood across all ages, but it’s also an important opportunity for businesses to bring in people who’ve never been to the 9th Street stores. “We're trying to entice them to come into our stores and see what we have that they don't need to [buy] online, or go to big–business box stores. We're little merchants, but we pack a punch with our products,” Grassia says. For herself, Grassia wants to continue providing fresh spices and herbs at her business, and to be able to acquire those products for her customers—something she's strived to do for over twenty years.
Egor Tolkunov, the General Manager of Taffets Bakery, has also lived and worked in South Philly for many years. He first began working at Taffets almost nine years ago, after one of the co–owners of the store overheard him asking about openings at a nearby coffee shop, and offered him a job to work at her and her husband’s bakery. Tolkunov is now a close friend of the Taffet family, who has owned the business for over ten years.
Before our conversation, Tolkunov gives me directions over the phone on how to find the shop. If you can’t find it, look out for the Good’s Vintage sign next door—you can’t miss it, he assures me. The exterior is a white–painted storefront on 9th Street overlooking a narrow row of produce stands.
When I arrive, the breads are unfortunately cleared off the displays. This is due to the fact that Taffets primarily operates as a wholesale business, although they are open for limited retail hours on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The business specializes in gluten–free baked goods and sweets, the latter of which are visible by the neat rows of goods that line the metal shelves across my table.
The bakery has been working in wholesale even before the pandemic, and they were still operating during COVID–19 as an essential business—not just because they're a food store, but also because people needed gluten–free supplies. Like many businesses in the Italian Market, Tolkunov has noticed a decrease in the amount of customer traffic in the area. “It has been gradually decreasing,” he says, “With every year we get less [people at the market].”
However, the close connections between the vendors and business owners of 9th Street have remained. “Everybody kind of knows everybody,” Tolkunov says. Many people have deep connections to the area, and after working with one another on the same street for years, it’s not uncommon for the residents to know where each person in the neighborhood lives or what businesses they operate. “We help people and people help us,” Tolkunov says frankly, referring to both Taffets, and the Italian Market community at large.
For over a century, the Italian Market has existed as a historic site of eclectic culture, culinary legacy, generational memory, and the work of vibrant immigrant communities. Although many challenges persist, if anything’s been emphasized in the last few years, it’s that the market’s roots run deep in the Philadelphia community, and forging new ways to endure—even in the face of hardship—is something baked into 9th Street’s very foundation.