The Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia had its struggles in 2020, so JerseyMan and I gave it some well-deserved props for the January 2021 issue. You can see it on JerseyMan’s website here, or see the magazine article here.
The Resilient Terminal Market
The Reading Terminal Market was hit hard by the pandemic, losing over half its foot traffic throughout the tourist season in 2020. The merchants, locals, and even some outsiders came together to help keep the lights on, but the quality of the goods is ultimately what keeps the Market going.
A visit to the Reading Terminal Market is well worth any travel expense and hassle, but it always presents an exasperating conundrum:
“What the hell am I gonna eat?”
Human stomachs are insufficiently sized enough that in every trip to Philly’s venerable marketplace, it’s impossible not to miss out on something amazing. It’s particularly rough for tourists, who may only manage one or two visits.
The Market sometimes seems to cause more culinary heartache than pleasure. Sure, have one or three of Beiler’s doughnuts…but unless you have a committed sweet tooth, that means foregoing Dutch Eating Place apple dumplings, Flying Monkey whoopie pies, or Termini Bros. torrones.
If you’ve ever experienced this distress, you’re not alone.
You’d think the Market’s general manager would have sound advice for this situation, but unfortunately Conor Murphy isn’t much help. Murphy visits the Market every day, and even he struggles mightily with the question.
“There’s just so many great sandwich options,” he says. “You’ve got a fantastic sandwich at Smucker’s, DiNic’s is obviously incredible. I’m an unapologetic carnivore, but there’s great sandwiches too at Luhv Vegan. Whether you want a chicken sandwich or a beef sandwich or a fresh deli sandwich…Hatville Deli does a great job…there’s just too many choices almost.
“It can be a challenge sometimes to choose your lunch. Phenomenal options, the classic Philadelphia specials, and also obviously great healthy options too.”
London Faust is the digital media manager at Bellevue Communications, the firm that manages the Market’s PR. She is a bit more willing to risk choosing a go-to vendor; she recommends Olympia Gyro.
“It’s well balanced and a good bang for your buck,” she shares. “Their gyros are really good and fresh, and don’t fill you up to the point where you’re so uncomfortably full, but they also have the biggest, freshest salads I’ve ever seen.”
Okay, that helps a bit. Murphy also offers a small but valuable piece of advice: Don’t look over your shoulder.
“Sometimes if you’re standing at DiNic’s, and then you look over your shoulder and you see Hershel’s, well then suddenly the decision just became much harder. You go to Olympia where London likes to go, and you turn over your shoulder and there’s Kamal’s.
“You kind of have to come in with your blinkers on almost. Make your decision and get it done. Because if you turn your shoulder, you might have to change your mind.”
This extreme gastronomic agitation is the true appeal of the Reading Terminal Market. For locals, the substantial selection of food staples keeps one returning, again and again. For frustrated tourists, it may inspire a better-planned return visit to Philadelphia. The Market is equal parts tourist attraction and favorite local destination, and it does both very, very well.
That balance has been key to its survival in the toughest of times. Which 2020 unquestionably was.
Throughout the history of the Reading Terminal Market, it seems to have been positioned to survive world instability. That doesn’t just include a depression and two world wars. The Market has weathered other storms too, like the decline of the railroad industry.
The “Reading Terminal” part of the name comes from its location, as a key hub for the Reading Railroad. The rise of the automobile drove the Railroad into bankruptcy by 1971. The Reading Company remained overseeing the Market, but they instituted higher rents for already struggling merchants, driving many of them away.
Decline and crumbling infrastructure continued until the Convention Center Authority purchased the Market in 1990. With that deal came $30 million of public funding for upgrades. To secure that kind of cash, you’ve probably got some clout with the locals.
So where does a worldwide pandemic rank among the tribulations the Market’s endured in its 128 years?
It’s probably top three.
“The Market has been through a lot,” Murphy says. “But I’m looking back through history, talking to different merchants and historians, and there’s a general sense that this is certainly up there with those past experiences.
“Usually from April through Thanksgiving, food and beverage options around the city get a lot of foot traffic. On a Friday or Saturday the Market would have anything from 35-40,000 people a day coming through. This year, it was anything from 55-60% drop in those numbers.”
The difficulty of social distancing in a tight city venue doesn’t help. “As an old train station, you can imagine the building is equipped for lots of people coming through,” Murphy adds.
Like every establishment in the country, the merchants have had to adapt to survive. But just as every difficult period in our history has revealed the strength of the Market, the challenging times caused folks to rally behind Philadelphia’s favorite food destination.
Even from as far as Boston.
As efforts grew to help the Market stay operational, including adding a GoFundMe page, it attracted the attention of Dave Portnoy, founder of Barstool Sports. Despite being a Beantown area native, Portnoy is a Philly food enthusiast and passionate about supporting the cause. He arranged for Penn National, the owner of Barstool Sports, to donate $100 for every $100 deposit made by fans in the Barstool Sportsbook app.
It was a significant factor in the GoFundMe campaign’s success, which has totaled $211,597 as this sentence was written, contributed by 4,773 Market fans. The funds will be enormously helpful for day-to-day operations.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic,” Murphy explains, “we’ve offered support to merchants in the form of rent deferments. One of the other things that we do a lot is events, and we are able to cover a lot of our costs through some of those events. So without the events, and with some deferments in place for merchants, we wanted to make sure we were able to remain available and open seven days a week.
“Simple things, being able to pay utility bills, and all the extra sanitation costs that we now have to keep customers safe.”
Murphy is overwhelmingly appreciative at the reminder of how beloved the Market and its peddlers really are.
“The Market has such an incredible presence for everyone that lives in the city,” he says. “Some of the personal stories were really, really fantastic. I think ultimately the Market is here because of Philadelphia, and because of the loyalty that shoppers have to us.”
Speaking of what he calls the camaraderie and spirit of the Market, you can hear the emotion in Murphy’s voice.
“With the essential service designation for public markets…nobody at the Market had to be told what that meant. They all just love to serve people. They fundamentally understand what it means to serve customers.
“I grew up in a small business in Ireland. People who run small businesses, they’ll always be my first heroes. They’re just fantastic people, you know, they really are. Small business is so, so important, especially now.
“I moved here six and a half years ago, and it’s amazing to see how people have been so supportive. It’s fantastic to see Philadelphians wanting to support the Market so much.”
Faust shares Murphy’s reverence for the outpouring of civic pride. “The Market’s really a family,” she adds, “and it’s really heartwarming to see everybody support each other.”
While 2020 was as tough on our favorite marketplace as it was on everyone, the difficulties may ultimately become growth opportunities. Murphy says merchants have greatly improved their ability to take online orders and deliver the goods for hungry fans. The virus may have revealed how much these iconic vendors underestimated their popularity outside of the building.
“We have worked really hard to get people onto delivery platforms. We’ve got a great partner, Mercato, that helps us on the food delivery side. Then the lunch counter merchants, trying to pivot their businesses to delivery apps, the Caviars and the Doordashes of this world.”
Murphy admits, however, that the ability to order delivery from so many wonderful vendors can’t match actually visiting a Market so abounding with edible excellence that you can’t even look over your shoulder. That exasperating whirlwind moment of indecision between Carmen’s and Keven Parker’s is the Reading Terminal Market at its alluring best.
“Pandemics end,” Murphy reflects, “and I think there is some light at the end of the tunnel with all the great news recently about vaccines. The best experience of the Reading Terminal Market is to come and visit us yourself. Ultimately, what we love to see here is people come through our doors to visit, because it is such a great food experience.”
That it is, even if it’s a torturous dilemma to choose from dozens of world-class eateries. Fortunately, Murphy is confident we’ll have many more opportunities to experience it all.
“There’s obviously a very clear love for the Market. That love has been built over 128 years, and our plan is to build it for 128 more.”
And Down Home Diner’s scrapple alone could keep us coming back until 2149.
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The Market Sampling Tour
The Taste of Philly Food Tour people can help you a tiny bit with the agonizing challenge of what to get at the Market. You can book an inexpensive tour of the Market on Taste of Philly Food Tour’s website, although as of this writing tours are still suspended.
Author Carolyn Wyman runs the site and tour, and she knows a bit about food in our fair city. She’s the author of The Great Philly Cheesesteak Book, the definitive guide to classic vendors of Philly’s signature sandwich. The very well done book even mentions 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry’s costly cheesesteak faux pas.
The tour is not actually through Philadelphia but is simply a tour of the Market itself; Carolyn or one of her friends leads visitors through the Market and shares stories of its history…along with, of course, tastings.
According to Wyman, samples that patrons get to try (based on group size and dietary issues) can include:
– A piece of a Miller’s Twist pretzel
– Scrapple from Down Home Diner or Dutch Eating Place
– Snapping turtle soup from Pearl’s Oyster Bar
– Butter cake from the Flying Monkey Bakery
– Jewish apple cake from Hershel’s deli
– Butterscotch vanilla ice cream from Bassett’s
– Wilbur Buds and Goldenberg Peanut Chews from the PA General Store.
Wyman adds, “The tour definitely includes ideas on other great foods and best finds in the Market…the most popular donut at Beiler’s, the unique Philly cream cheese cheesesteak at Carmen’s, the summer-only lemon cooler cake at Termini’s etc.”
Certainly enough to assist in that blasted decision process, and samples are small enough that you’ll still have room to order a full version of what you liked the most.
The Market’s website calls it “fun history that has nothing to do with government”. Something to consider for the next field trip with the kids.
A True National Treasure
The Market has made a few appearances in American cinema, most notably in the 2004 hit National Treasure.
You may remember the scene: Abigail (Diane Kruger) and Riley (Justin Bartha) temporarily escape from villain Ian Howe’s (Sean Bean) henchmen in the Market, and Abigail temporarily hides behind the counter of Martin’s Quality Meats. The woman working behind the counter, after initially informing Abigail that she doesn’t belong there if she’s not a steak, lets her stay believing that she’s running from her ex-husband.
The movie crew brought in close to 50 extras to pose as customers (the woman behind the counter was an actress named Sharon Wilkins) and spent 14 hours on two Sundays filming the scene. Gabrielle Giunta, daughter of Martin’s owner Martin Giunta, told JerseyMan about it.
“The market was closed on Sundays, and they asked us to open and set the case on a Sunday to do the filming. The producer put an actress behind the counter for ‘customer service’ and they had to film the scene a bunch to get it right.
“A lot of people did ask us about that in passing – was pretty cool as a kid to hear people ask my dad about being in National Treasure.”
The chase scene, like the rest of the movie, turned out superbly. But the movie makers seriously screwed the pooch on feeding the crew. They brought in a trailer from an outside caterer, rather than letting the crew dine on the countless offerings from the Market itself.
If you’ve never seen the movie, you can view the scene on YouTube. (But check out the whole movie…it’s good.)
Bringing The Market To You
As Conor Murphy points out, the Market has partnered with Mercato, the online grocery delivery service. Thanks in part to the pandemic, you can now order food from most any Reading Terminal Market merchant, and have it delivered within a reasonable radius.
Be warned; the process of choosing isn’t any easier…but at least you can take some time to think about it. The merchants’ logos are featured in a rotating slider, enabling you to choose one and view their delivery offerings. Order a blackened chicken platter from Beck’s Cajun Café, a vegetable lasagna from By George, and a pound of smoked wings from Dienner’s. Add three chocolate swirl banana puddings from Sweet Nina’s for dessert, and you’ve got a few days’ worth of fantastic food in the comfort of your own digs.
It’s not cheap; the shopping excursion just described will set you back just over $75 if you’re sending it to Turnersville. But it spares you the gas, tolls, parking, and travel time, and Mercato will bring the fabulous flavors of the Market to your front door. Mercato offers discounted delivery when you join their Green service.
It’s a great way to experience the Market without leaving your home, which, as we’ve all recently learned, is something that could afflict anyone.
Philbert, The Reading Terminal Market Mascot
If you’ve visited the Market, you may or may not have noticed Philbert, the life-sized pig statue that sits on a box of coins in the center of the market. Philbert is named for Filbert Street, one of the streets adjoining the Market.
Philbert was sculpted by Eric Berg, who passed away of heart disease in May of 2020, at the age of 74. Other Berg structures in the city include the Drexel dragon, the panda at the Children’s Hospital, and the African Warthog at the Philadelphia Zoo. You can view his impressive body of work here.
In addition to being a popular Market meeting spot, Philbert is in fact a piggy bank; visitors can drop coins in its mouth, which eventually lands in the glass box on which Philbert sits. The money in the box is then donated to a different charitable organization each month, as determined by the Philly Food Trust.
You can rub his snout for good luck too, as many do; maybe it will help you make that all-important food choice at the market.
Source: Atlas Obscura
So some years ago…2012 in fact…I wrote a post about going gluten free in Wildwood for my entertaining and informative “Beaches And Boards” blog. I had no idea that post would do so well – as I write this it’s #7 in Google for “gluten free wildwood NJ”.
Anyway, that post is fairly outdated…Westy’s and Juan Pablo’s, sadly, no longer exist…and the situation is much improved for celiacs in the Wildwoods, so I thought I’d share an updated report.
This is by no means a complete list of eateries in Wildwood that offer gluten free menus, but my celiac-afflicted wife and I have tried many of these places, so hopefully it’s helpful to you.
Finally! Gluten Free Pizza on the Wildwood Boardwalk!!
Yes, you read that right! There are now at least three pizza joints on the Wildwood boardwalk with gluten free pizza, and while I am very grateful for this development, it does present a small dilemma.
Here is my minor but significant issue: in my opinion, the gluten free pizza at 3 Brothers is superior to the GF pizza at Sorrento II, but the regular pizza at Sorrento II is superior to 3 Brothers. I haven’t tried any pizza at the Original Hot Spot yet.
Thankfully, the Sorrento II and 3 Brothers aren’t far from each other, so we can often do one or both. Or we take turns. But at least I can finally eat pizza on the Wildwood boards again without feeling bad for my wife. So this is a good problem to have. All of these places deserve a shoutout.
Sorrento II. I rank Sorrento II among the best pizza shops on the Wildwood boards for their regular pizza. It was the winner in a pizza-off my brother and I did one night, just edging out Sam’s Pizza Palace…which is also very good, but doesn’t offer gluten free yet. Sorrento II isn’t popular with Yelpers, so I added my two cents there.
Sorrento II is one of those places where you can try some unusual pizza toppings, like BBQ chicken, and it’s a nice thin crust with decent crunch when re-heated (as most boardwalk slices are). You get a decent sized slice for your coin here.
However, while I’m extremely grateful that they offer it, their GF pizza leaves a bit to be desired. It isn’t horrible, but it isn’t great. Given the choice of gluten free pizza in Wildwood only, I’d go with 3 Brothers. But it is nice to be able to go to Sorrento II and have no problem with the wife.
3 Brothers Pizza. 3 Brothers, as of this writing, probably makes the best gluten free pizza in Wildwood. Certainly so on the boardwalk, where Sorrento II and Original Hot Spot currently their only competition. I believe they use a crust made from rice, and it’s even edible by traditional pizza standards. My little ones actually prefer it to their regular pizza.
But 3 Brothers’ traditional pizza offering is just okay…and just okay is not okay in a spot where there are dozens of pizza shops that offer very good pies. Don’t get me wrong, it’s adequate and I can enjoy it, but given the choice for non-GF pizza, I’d probably go elsewhere.
Original Hot Spot – The Original Hot Spot offers gluten-free and cauliflower pizza on their menu. We haven’t yet tried it, but I’d avoid this place. My wife and I have eaten there before their GF pizza was available, and while they were able to accommodate her allergy with a roll-free cheesesteak, the food in general was not good.
They are also, according to Yelpers, adding 20% tip charges automatically to the bill. Not wise in times like these. However, again, I haven’t tried the GF pizza yet, so if it’s good, maybe it’s worth that 20% automatic tip for you. They deserve credit for that. Just be mindful.
There’s a reason there are no long lines in front of Original Hot Spots on the Wildwood boards, unlike, say, Sam’s Pizza Palace or Curley’s Fries.
Someone say Curley’s Fries?
Curley’s Fries – GLUTEN FREE!!
My favorite Wildwood food of all is Curley’s Fries – they’re so great that JerseyMan magazine let me do a piece on them and their survival during the Crappiest Year of 2020. Every trip we make to Wildwood includes a stop at Curley’s. But what really makes this iconic fry stand a blessing from God is that they do fries…just fries.
That means that their vats aren’t used for anything trivial like chicken fingers or jalapeno poppers, making them free of contamination and Curley’s fries safe for celiacs to eat. Hooray!
Plus they’re outstanding fries, the best on the Wildwood boards. If there’s one reason for celiacs to vacation in Wildwood, it’s that they’ll be making no sacrifices when it comes to French fried potatoes.
Gluten Free Breakfast in Wildwood
You can go to any of several Wildwood diners and eat breakfast safely…we’ve eaten at the Vegas Diner, Adam’s Restaurant, and Pompeo’s without incident…but none of them have specific gluten free menus. They’re all accommodating places, though, so you can generally feel safe.
But there are a few joints that do have a heart for gluten free Wildwood visitors:
Uncle Bill’s Pancake House. Learning of Uncle Bill’s offering gluten free French toast was an exciting revelation, because this is another favorite spot of mine. I love their pancakes, and the wife loves the GF French toast. Incidentally, Uncle Bill’s isn’t just in Wildwood…they have locations in a number of Jersey Shore towns.
Incidentally, I don’t see the GF French toast on their menu; I’ve e-mailed and asked about it. I’ll let you know as soon as I get a response.
Bonus tip: Just for your situational awareness. Uncle Bill’s gets very crowded (like I said, it’s a great place), and their parking lot and the one across Pacific Avenue are small and often full…because most people don’t know that there is a larger lot behind the restaurant! Turn onto East Andrews Avenue, go around the block and use that lot.
There you go, a pro tip at no extra charge. (This blog’s full of them!)
Key West Café. The Key West Café is located across East Andrews Avenue from Uncle Bill’s; it’s easy to find. Just look for the colorful bird on the side of the building. Again, you may have some trouble finding a parking spot; don’t use the Uncle Bill’s lot for the Cafe.
I confess that I haven’t tried the Key West Café yet, but they do offer gluten free pancakes, which, like the Café itself, gets positive reviews on TripAdvisor. I’m confident this is a good place to go for celiacs. Hopefully I’ll try it out next time I’m in town.
Stuey’s Juice Bar. We haven’t tried Stuey’s yet either, mostly because we usually stay in North Wildwood, which is a couple of miles away. But Stuey’s is a breakfast spot on the Wildwood boardwalk, at the southern end just north of Wildwood Crest. If you’re staying in one of the hotels on the beach in the Crest, this would make a nice morning spot.
There’s not much in the way of sit down dining, but Stuey’s does offer a wide variety of celiac-friendly stuff, including gluten free pancakes, breakfast sandwiches on gluten free bread, and a bunch of items that wouldn’t have gluten in them to begin with.
Stuey’s also offers smoothies and gourmet coffee, so it’s a win-win.
Gluten Free in Wildwood – Some Other Restaurants That Get It
Here’s a couple of other joints we’ve visited in Wildwood that get the gluten free job done:
Alumni Grill. I love the Alumni Grill, and I especially love that there’s now one in Glassboro, just ten minutes away from my house!
The Alumni Grill is perfect for celiacs – the food is great, it’s cheap, and they’re very careful about ensuring that food isn’t contaminated. They actually have a gluten free menu – which includes four types of fries (sweet potato!), and multiple burgers and sandwiches on Udi’s rolls. Their fries are excellent too…they’re not Curley’s, but they’re really good.
The Alumni is great for a cheap takeout (it’s not a great sit down atmosphere), and we use them a lot. It’s a real find in Wildwood for gluten free options.
Bandana’s Mexican Grille. It’s been a long time since we’ve visited Bandana’s, but as I remember it the food was pretty good. And they are definitely aware of allergy issues. They don’t have a specific gluten free menu, but their menu does state which options are gluten free or can be made so. There’s also a page on their website dedicated to allergens, including gluten. That alone makes Bandana’s worth a visit.
They’re reasonable too as Wildwood restaurants go, and Mexican joints are in fairly short supply here. So it’s a solid pick.
Gluten Free Desserts!
The Wildwood boardwalk can be a diabetic nightmare, with nearly every other store offering fried or fattening desserts by the truckload.
But going gluten free? No problem! With most any joint that offers ice cream in Wildwood, you can generally get something safe, and the water ice and fudge shops are usually safe too…at least the flavors that don’t include cookie crumbs or whatever. Just avoid fried Oreos, ice cream sandwiches, and stuff like that obviously.
There is one joint that goes the extra mile for those of us afflicted or married to the afflicted:
Cool Scoops Ice Cream. Cool Scoops is a classic 1950s style ice cream shop, with a wide variety of very cool variations of sundaes, and that in itself is cool enough. But they also take the simple step of offering gluten free cones. (Not hard to do!!)
It’s not the cheapest ice cream joint (most of them are pricey here), but it’s worth it…you can get an amazing sundae in a fold-up 50s car, and the classic diner atmosphere is fantastic too. A great place to visit with the kids, but especially if you’re a celiac who misses ice cream cones.
We’ve tried Banana’s Ice Cream Café, which supposedly offers GF cones, but we were underwhelmed by it as I recall. Far prefer Cool Scoops, but Bananas deserves a mention.
A Few Other Places We’ve Tried Without Issue
We’ve been to Wildwood many times, and for going out we usually just look for a general place that understands enough to leave out the roll. At times the wife will just bring her own roll, and make a sandwich with that.
I’ve already mentioned some breakfast joints. Here’s a partial list of places where we have been able to eat without incident, so I presume you could go there and be accommodated:
Urie’s Waterfront Restaurant. The food here is unspectacular, but the atmosphere is great, right next to the marina. Be sure to ask for a table there for a terrific view. The wife has never had a problem there.
Poppi’s Brick Oven Pizza. Poppi’s doesn’t yet have GF pizza unfortunately, but they have a lot of things they can go gluten free, and their pizza is fantastic for non-celiacs.
Mr. D’s Pizzeria And Subs. Mr. D’s moved since we tried them (don’t expect the storefront to look like this photo) – its former location is where Poppi’s is now. But as I recall I believe the wife got a sandwich without the roll and it was fine, and they make pretty good sandwiches for non-celiacs too.
Piro’s. An Italian joint on New York Avenue in North Wildwood. Excellent food, terrific atmosphere, and they have plenty of options for food without bread in it. We like this place a lot.
There you go my friends; hopefully you now have some doable choices for going gluten free in Wildwood. Feel free to drop me a line and let me know if anything has changed.
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The world’s best bread? Maybe. JerseyMan sent me to write a piece about Sarcone’s, the fifth-generation Philadelphia bakery. A lot of fun to write, and an iconic place to visit and pick up some truly amazing bread. You can view the PDF of the magazine article here.
It’s All About The Bread
Sarcone’s Bakery is in its fifth generation of baking bread for Philadelphians.
If you’re wondering just how good the bread is from Sarcone’s Bakery, consider that the winner of the Travel Channel’s “Best Sandwich in America” changed their rolls to Sarcone’s…after taking the prize.
In 2012 Adam Richman’s popular show spent ten episodes—with several elimination rounds—deciding which offering of meat on bread was the best in the nation. DiNic’s Roast Pork in the Reading Terminal Market won the hotly contested honor.
“The day after he got that trophy,” says Louis Sarcone Jr., the fourth generation owner of the venerable bakery, “the first thing he did was switch his bread to Sarcone’s.”
A bold move, to say the least.
“People were blown away by it,” Sarcone remembers. “You just won best sandwich in America. Not Philly, America! His answer was, we want to stay the best. How do you improve our sandwich? We improved our bread.”
To those familiar with Sarcone’s Bakery on South 9th Street, though, DiNic’s switch isn’t as earthshaking as it appears. The irony is that in changing a national award-winning formula, DiNic’s turned to an institution that hasn’t changed anything in 96 years.
At least they went with someone who has the technique down.
Sarcone’s has survived two World Wars, the Great Depression and every recession since. But perhaps more remarkably, it has survived what can be the toughest challenge several times…the next generation.
Sitting relaxed on the store’s window ledge, Lou Jr. shares the secrets of the family’s continued success. His son, Louis Sarcone III, stands patiently nearby, occasionally offering his own thoughts but seemingly more to learn the art of the interview from Dad…who is clearly versed in giving them.
“If you don’t listen to the generation before you, something gets lost,” Lou Jr. says. “You have to pay attention, and that’s the hardest thing for generational businesses, listening to the one before you. Even if you disagree with that person, you can really screw up a family business if you don’t listen.
“My grandfather, the first thing he told me was, if you put too much food in your mouth, you can’t chew. The younger generation sees a business, they see financial, they see money, they see an opportunity for the brand. If you try to expand too much, you lose something. You lose control of a business, you may lose a recipe, you may lose the quality of the product.
“But if you keep your product the same and keep trucking along, your customers will always come in because you make a great product.”
This isn’t to say that there’s never been attempts to expand the name, or even ill-advised ones. Sarcone’s Deli just up the street uses the bakery’s bread, and they are doing just fine. But opening delicatessens elsewhere proved a challenge. Possibly with his grandfather’s words in the back of his mind, Lou Jr. pulled back the reins.
“My first cousin, Anthony Bucci, was an executive chef for the Wyndham Plaza. He got tired of working for big companies. He opened his own deli in Limerick; he’s been there 28 years. We opened the deli about 12 years ago. I let him run it. The only thing I’m involved in is paperwork and making bread.
“We expanded; we had five delis not including our own. My father had gotten sick at the bakery, and my cousin had a heart attack and was out for a year and a half. I couldn’t do day-to-day operations for two businesses. We put too much food in our mouth, I did.”
The younger Sarcone adds: “You have to keep an eye on the franchises, because you want everything to be the same. They’ll start adding things that don’t belong.”
Lou Jr. agrees. “We use Di Bruno cheese. They might go to the supermarket and get it a dollar cheaper. Stuff like that happens. You don’t want it to happen, but it could happen. So before we had that black eye, we closed the deli.”
So while Cherry Hill residents may have been disappointed, Lou Jr. was content to go back to running the bakery. No reason to change what worked for four generations, be it the nature of the business or the recipe for the bread.
“I’ve never changed the recipe,” he notes. “Sometimes the quality of the flour may change, maybe protein levels aren’t there and you have to add a little bit of protein. We do have to adjust for that. But as far as changing the recipe, no. It’s water, flour, salt and yeast.”
But lest anyone think they can bake bread as good as Sarcone’s once they know the ingredients, Lou describes the craftsmanship of the baking process. The real secret? Time.
“It’s a six hour process. We have a guy that comes in at 12:00 every night. The dough sits for two hours. The bakers start coming in at 2:00 AM, processing the dough, the various shapes, sizes, and measures. It takes two hours to do that, so that’s four hours. Then they have to turn it into a loaf of bread, turn it into a roll, so by the time the bread is mixed and comes out of the oven, it’s six hours.
“No commercial bakery shop is going to wait six hours; they’re going to put in preservatives and meet the demand.”
Brick ovens make a difference too, as the younger Sarcone points out: “What also makes us unique is our ovens. They were built in 1920; you can’t find them anywhere anymore.”
Dad continues. “The alternative is metal, an oven that revolves. The only thing that revolves in a brick oven is our bakers. We go in with 15-foot sticks and move the bread around ourselves, to the hot spot in the oven.
“Ever see trucks that say ‘hearth-baked bread’? That’s baloney, because nobody uses brick, especially in a commercial bakery. Ours is hearth baked, there’s no metal in between the bread, the dough, and the hearth.
“It’s an art. There’s no timer, no thermostat on the oven. Well, there is, but they’re untrue. So it’s all knowing the dough, how loose it was or how cold it was or how warm it is out, how long it’s gonna take. And the sound; you pull a loaf of bread out and tap the bottom, you hear a certain sound, you know it’s done.”
It takes time to master the craft, so Sarcone keeps people around that do. “Bakers have been here at least ten years or more. They like what they’re doing, so they stay. I treat everybody like we’re family. Morale is good here, considering people are getting up at 2:00 in the morning.”
As Lou Jr. freely shares, the secret isn’t an ingredient or brand of yeast…it’s taking the time, sticking with what works, and not putting so much food in your mouth that you can’t chew. That’s the family formula that has kept the store in Philadelphia for nearly a century.
There have been plenty of awards and gushing press through the years, but Lou Jr.’s proudest moment was the locals’ response to a debilitating fire.
In October of 2000, a Molotov cocktail was thrown through the window, burning the front of the store down. The culprit was never captured nor the motive revealed—“there’s a million stories out there, pick one,” Lou says—but the city came together to literally lift the bakery from the ashes as quickly as possible.
“The fire department, the city council, the mayor, they came here to help us get open because they didn’t want to see us leave. Contractors, electricians, inspectors, zoning people, they were all here the next day. We didn’t have to wait. They were waiting for us.
“We were open a week next door. We moved our storefront into the packing area. It wasn’t pretty, but people actually liked that better. They saw men work, they saw the flour, they saw everything. We spent thousands to replace the store; they wanted the old way!
“That was something I’ll never forget, the way the neighbors and the city came together to help us.”
Fourteen years later, Sarcone’s remains a beloved institution in Philadelphia—and a must-visit for tourists. Customers gather daily outside like music fans once waited for concert tickets before the Internet. Lines begin forming at six in the morning and sometimes extend for blocks.
To Louis Sarcone Jr., it’s the definition of success.
“Remember Springdale Road and Route 70 in Cherry Hill, used to be called the Point View Inn?,” he asks. “A little house. That guy had lines for years back in the 70s. He turned it into what it looks like now. Because he got massively big, he closed within a year, then it was Pizzeria Uno, now it’s a PJ Whelihan’s. That place, I could always remember, it was the longest lines ever for a family restaurant.
“You want lines. You want people to have a hard time getting in. Why is that line two blocks long? We gotta try it!”
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Sarcone’s Bakery has been a Philly institution longer than…
…the Flyers, Eagles, and 76ers
…the Ben Franklin Bridge
…the 215 area code
…the Daily News
…WIP, WFIL, and WCAU radio
…the PSFS Building
…30th Street Station
…the Schuylkill Expressway
…Pat’s and Geno’s cheesesteaks (and all of their successors)
Accolades for Sarcone’s from Yelp Nation:
In 64 Yelp reviews, Sarcone’s averages four and a half stars out of five. Some quotes from the bakery’s fans:
“In footie pajamas I offer night time prayers thankful that Sarcone’s exists and it’s so close to my house…’cause good bread they got…you seriously could put just about anything on that seeded Italian bread and it would be glorious.” – Kathleen D., Philadelphia
“It’s that alluring smell that makes you just want to rip off a piece and eat it. It doesn’t need butter, it’s perfect as is.” – Vinny P., Philadelphia
“My local farmer’s market has a small place in it that sells sandwiches. My Dad found out they were using rolls from Sarcone’s and asked to buy whatever they had leftover at the end of the night, and offered over triple what they originally paid for them. The Best Bread. Period.” Michelle M., Wilmington, DE
“You, along with many others, will line up to hopefully buy a long seeded roll, sandwich rolls, or anything else that comes fresh from their ovens. It’s a work of delicious, crispy crunchiness that cannot and will not be denied.” – Tyler R., Philadelphia
“Dear Sarcone’s – I miss you dreadfully. Whether I ate your bread fresh as I walked home, turned it into a hoagie or slathered it with garlic butter and baked it to soft yet crispy perfection, it always made the meal. There is no way to express the sadness I feel in my heart and in my mouth at now living so many states away…Love, Amelia” – Amelia L., Brighton, MA
“This place is why Philly can make a case for being the sandwich capital of the world.” – Chris W. Philadelphia
“I don’t even consider a Hoagie a Hoagie unless it’s made in a Sarcone Roll.” – Bruce B., Philadelphia
Staples of Sarcone’s:
Seeded Italian Bread – “We’re known for putting seeded Italian bread on the map,” Lou Sarcone Jr. says. “If I stop making seeded bread, if I only made plain bread, Liscio’s would have to change their bread to plain bread. They couldn’t fake it out being Sarcone’s.” Primo’s Hoagies started out with Sarcone’s seeded Italian bread, until the expansion made it impossible for Sarcone’s to keep up the supply. “Once they establish their name they leave me,” Sarcone says.
Tomato Pies – Sarcone’s tomato pies on their garlicky baked Sicilian crust are actually a popular breakfast item with locals; as the Zagat website mention of Sarcone’s describes it: “The end result is almost like what you get when sweeping up leftover spaghetti sauce on your plate with the end of your bread.”
Pepperoni Bread – The pepperoni rolls (or sausage rolls, if you prefer), contain a generous amount of meat for such a delicacy, and the soft crust of the bread contains just the right amount of olive oil. If they’re out of pizza slices in your next visit, try one of these.
Bread Crumbs – There isn’t often leftovers in a bakery that usually sells out its products in the early afternoon, but Lou Sarcone knows what to do with them. “We let it get stale for four or five days, then grind it up and sell it as bread crumbs. Restaurants buy them by the hundred pounds; walk-in customers buy it by the pound,” Lou says.
My article about the amazing Duck Donuts and their history was published in the Summer 2018 issue of JerseyMan Magazine. Click here to see the article on their website, or click here to see the PDF magazine version. Thanks for reading.
Duck Donuts began franchising just five years ago. Today they have sold more than 200 stores, including new openings in Marlton and Avalon. The donut-buying public is ecstatic.
We should all love our jobs as much as Ted Gill does.
It’s refreshing to hear a business professional, with franchise ownership aspirations, unashamedly spout three “really”s describing his product.
“People really, really, really love the idea of fresh, made-to-order donuts,” he says, when asked how business has been since the opening. “Business has been great.”
There’s no measured, calculated tone with Gill. His enthusiasm leads to unabashed exaggeration. “There is a little bit of a wait, but it’s definitely worth it. You get a warm donut, and it’s a million times different than if you got one just sitting around the shelf somewhere.”
Ted Gill is the general manager at one of the newest Duck Donuts locations. He runs the show in the recently opened Marlton store in the Marlton Crossing strip mall, as the rapidly expanding chain of made to order donut shops makes a splash in the Garden State.
A former owner of an East Brunswick pizzeria, Gill found the opening for the Duck Donuts position on Facebook. He spoke with the franchise owners, who probably had an easy time deciding to give him the job. In an age where one bad customer experience gets halfway around the world before a good one gets its pants on, Ted Gill gets it. “People want a fresh, delicious product, and customer service is key. We want everybody to leave here with a smile.”
He plugs his employer like a winning racecar driver. “That’s what we strive to do at Duck Donuts.”
Duck Donuts President Gary McAneney, who is overseeing the company’s ludicrous-speed expansion, shares Gill’s enthusiasm for customer happiness as part of the big picture.
“It is a detail-oriented business. You have to pay attention each and every day to the small stuff,” McAneney says. “I think that’s with any food business, but ours is a little different…we’re discretionary spend. People have choices on whether they’re gonna buy donuts or not. It’s not a must have, so we need to be on top of our game with each and every experience.
“Our franchisees have to understand that. They cannot take their success for granted. Even if the first month or so, lines are out the door and sales are going great, they can’t take their foot off the gas pedal delivering that customer experience.”
During the interview with Gill, customers filter in and are greeted warmly by the staff. Employees behind the counter assist them in the challenging decision of how to coat their donuts, send the brand new donuts through the fryer, and carefully cover them with the requested toppings and drizzles, creating dazzling donut artwork that looks as great as it tastes. All in full view for customers…many of them excited children…to watch.
It’s fair to believe that the experience is rehearsed enough that it isn’t just a show for a writer of a popular magazine. It’s also fair to say the experience is different from well-known large donut chains, who have rested on “acceptable” customer service laurels for decades.
So yes, the quality of service at Duck Donuts is noteworthy. But let’s not discount the quality of the donuts as part of the business plan.
Sitting on the counter is a cake container filled with cinnamon sugar donut pieces, which patrons are welcome to try. Usually the taste results in approval for the complete, paid version, with any of a “duckzillion” combinations of coatings, toppings, and drizzles.
Your fresh and warm donut can be coated with strawberry frosting, Oreo crumbs and hot fudge drizzle. Or try peanut butter frosting, with shredded coconut and blackberry drizzle. And so on. Imagine choosing a dozen combinations like this for your team at work. Imagine your suddenly improved stature within the company as you open the box to display them at the meeting. Can’t think of the right combo? Duck Donuts suggests favorites: maple frosting with chopped bacon (bigger than bacon bits) is beloved of course, as is the Key lime frosting donut with graham cracker crumbs, which is only available in the spring.
When this writer’s arm is twisted enough to try one (resulting in a fairly easy “uncle”), he opts for a breakfast sandwich…a maple covered donut sliced in half, with egg and cheese inside and bacon pieces on top. After some thoughtful consideration of the additional bicycle miles required to work it off, I follow up with the aforementioned Key lime edition.
The verdict? Let’s just say that with Duck Donuts in Marlton now, you’re within an acceptable radius anywhere in South Jersey. Go try them. If you can find a better donut, contact me so I can ask Ken to let me do a story on them too.
The fresh coffee is no slouch either, in case one still thinks that’s a reason to frequent the “leading brand” donut stores.
Duck Donuts founder and CEO Russ DiGilio simply wanted to make the world, or at least the Outer Banks of North Carolina, a better place.
DiGilio, who at the time owned several assisted living facilities, frequently spent vacations with his family in the resort town of Duck (you see where this is going, right?), which, according to Wikipedia, offers “outdoor recreational activities, summer events and concerts, watersports, fine dining, shopping, art galleries, and a nationally known jazz festival.”
The only thing missing from that list, DiGilio noticed, was a fresh donut shop. And so the first Duck Donuts was born.
Well, okay. Don’t quit your day job thinking it’s that simple. DiGilio and his family spent months developing the right combination of batter and shortening…“from absolute scratch”…and researching the market before opening the first store in 2007.
“There are a lot of different food options out there,” DiGilio notes, “and if someone wants to come up with something, they need a niche. They need something unique, a hook to bring people in. You can’t just be any Joe Schmoe hamburger shop. There’s just way too much competition.
“In our days as kids, going to boardwalks and hole in the wall places, we used to get donuts, and they were made to order. You walked up to the window, they made some donuts and you go on your way. Our reminiscing of times when we were on vacation prompted us to do this in a much different way.”
“Fortunately for us, made to order wasn’t very prevalent.”
Nor did it become prevalent in Duck for the first couple of years after the store’s opening. As every business owner knows, success doesn’t come without a struggle. It took some time.
“The first year out of the gate…nobody knew what we were about. On vacation you’ve got a lot of options. It took word of mouth. The third year was the first year we broke even, that’s when it kicked in and we said this has legs. By the fourth year, we knew we had something special.”
To say word of mouth has been an effective marketing tool for Duck Donuts would be quite the understatement.
It’s one thing to inform your soon to be vacationing friend about the amazeballs donut shop on Osprey Landing. It’s quite another level to repeatedly pester the founder about franchising. Duck Donuts gets so many such offers that there is a prominent page on their website about how to do just that.
“It was surprising to me how much a donut impacted people,” DiGilio recalls, “but when you think about it, the whole idea is family based. People were on vacation enjoying themselves, and it just elicited these memories of while people were on vacation of an enjoyable time.
“It was almost like we had a cult following. We had people write in all the time, telling us how much they love our concept, the donuts were out of this world, and they just loved it. They prompted us, year after year, to come to their hometown or teach them how to do what we do.
“Over time it became so overwhelming that we said, we’re gonna kick ourselves if we don’t test the waters and try to franchise this concept.”
Today Duck Donuts is operational in 13 states, with contracts to open in ten more. The actual number of stores is growing so rapidly that an exact number listed here would likely be inaccurate at press time. There have been 200 locations sold since 2013, with 30 stores likely to open this year alone.
Some pretty impressive numbers in just five years of franchising. But to DiGilio, that first franchise opening, in Williamsburg, VA, is still arguably the proudest moment.
“That couple dipped their toes in the water before anyone else and took a huge risk, which we’re eternally grateful for. But the fact that that store opened with such fanfare and has done so well and continues to this day, in the big picture, set us on our way.”
And if Dunkin Donuts and Krispy Kreme aren’t looking over their shoulders yet, they ought to be.
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Quack Gives Back
Duck Donuts didn’t invent the Chemo Duck, as is easy to believe when one initially views the Quack Gives Back page of their website. Which is why the two entities are a perfect fit for each other.
Chemo Duck is a program dedicated to helping children with cancer overcome their fear and anxiety through the inevitably trying therapy. Children are given a “Chemo Duck”, a stuffed yellow duck with hospital scrubs and a chemotherapy port. Parents can use the Chemo Duck to help their children see what their therapy entails and to help ease the child through treatments.
“Obviously what caught our attention was the duck,” DiGilio explains. “Their whole program is based on childhood cancer awareness and education. They’re not really working for a cure, but they are helping the families who are dealing with this type of illness, who need a lot of support and comfort and education.”
This last September (September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month), all of the Duck Donuts stores gathered together and raised $75,000 for Gabe’s Chemo Duck Program.
“We deal with families, they’re one of our primary customers, mothers with children. This was a nice tie-in, because it’s children dealing with an illness, and they have a duck as their mascot, so it just seemed like a natural relationship. And all families can benefit from what we have to offer and this is our way to give back to those struggling with illness.”
Duck Donuts strongly encourages franchisees to give back, which they are happy to do, through their Quack Gives Back program. The King of Prussia store alone raised over $4,000 for the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “We challenge our franchisees to be connected with their local community,” DiGilio says. “We want our stores to be connected with whomever, nonprofits, baseball teams, high schools, churches, etc..”
If you’d like to learn more about Gabe’s Chemo Duck Program, you can find the website at chemoduck.org.
The Staff’s Favorites
With all of the duckzillion combinations available to choose from, it’s difficult to choose a favorite. But the management team at Duck Donuts is willing to offer their opinions. It’s a testament to the Duck Donuts recipe how even the people running the show sometimes just love the naked cinnamon sugar Duck donut.
Russ DiGilio, Founder and CEO: Personally, when I’m on vacation, I get pretty basic. I like a cup of our coffee, a cinnamon sugar donut and a crossword puzzle. That’s what I do when I wake up in the morning. When I want some fun I’ll do vanilla icing with coconut shredding and raspberry drizzle. Or lemon icing with coconut shredding and raspberry drizzle, they’re my favorites.
Gary McAneney, President: I’m a little more traditional, I just like the lemon with the raspberry drizzle. When I am, on vacation I’ll do the chocolate just with the rainbow sprinkles are traditional. I think that’s one of our best, to be honest.
Kristin Kellum, PR Manager: It’s really simple, but it’s the cinnamon sugar with vanilla drizzle. That warm donut with the cinnamon sugar is just the perfect combination in my opinion.
Nora Branconi, Co-Owner of the Marlton Store: S’mores, which is chocolate icing, graham cracker crumbles and marshmallow drizzle.
Ted Gill, Marlton Store Manager: My favorite is the cinnamon sugar…it’s simple, there’s a million choices you could choose from, but when the warm donut comes out, and the cinnamon sugar sticks to it, it is absolutely delicious. Now, I like all the donuts. The bacon maple donut is delicious. What’s not to like about bacon?
The Critics Rave!
Just a few months into the opening of the Marlton store, Yelp has 37 reviews as of this writing, averaging four stars. Here’s what a few of the customers are saying:
“They don’t make the cheapest donut or the fastest donut, so if you want that, Duck Donuts isn’t for you. But if you want the best donut you ever had, no doubt partially because you got to pick the topping and drizzle on it, Ducks is for you.” – Matt W., Williamstown, NJ
“Trust me when I say you are in for a treat when you come to Duck Donuts. The staff is friendly and the donuts are amazing! This is my favorite donut place in South Jersey!” Nicci G., Burlington, NJ
“I’m so glad you’re a part of the neighborhood. Really. Your donuts are made fresh, on the spot, and your staff is so nice…GREAT DONUTS. GREAT PEOPLE. Thank you!” – Ashley T., Philadelphia, PA
“I had the pleasure of first trying Duck Donuts but from their KOP location. Last year when I found out they were moving into a Marlton location I couldn’t control my excitement. I have been counting down the days to the grand opening and here it is.” – Abigail W., Evesham Township, NJ
“This is a hot new location that will be buzzing for months! Yelp will assist in blowing this up even more and bringing attention to these amazing holes of deliciousness!” – Jason D., Marlton, Evesham Township, NJ
“If you gave this place any less than 5 stars, I don’t think you actually went here. It was busy at 5pm, on a Thursday, in the rain! C’mon people, this place is off the hook. Come one, come all, put all the Dunkin Donuts in the area out of business!!!” – Christopher C., Marlton, NJ
If you were apprehensive about a South American vacation because of the absence of Duck Donuts, that’s no longer a problem for you. As this article goes to press, Duck Donuts has recently announced an expansion into the Southern Hemisphere, with ten stores opening in Chile.
According to the official press release, Duck Donuts has signed an international franchise agreement with OBX Alimentos SpA. Their CEO, Marcial Dieguez-Acuna, is quoted as saying “We look forward to having Chileans adopt this new concept with open arms and for Duck Donuts to become a significant player in the sweets industry in Chile. We will offer a superior product to current market standards and with the highest level of quality service.”
Given that the business model is working pretty well in America, it’s not hard to imagine that Chileans will take to Duck Donuts just as quickly. Russ DiGilio says the company is pursuing more international franchising opportunities.
In a few years, you may be able to get a Duck Donut wherever your vacation plans take you.
OK, this is a long winded post about the quality of the best spaghetti sauce recipe ever constructed. If you just want the recipe itself, click here to go right to it. (Or click here for a printable version.)
Many years ago, Mom shared her meat sauce recipe with me, not knowing the world instability this would cause. I just recently asked her where she’d gotten it and she told me that it was a very old Better Homes & Gardens recipe (of course), and she did some tweaking of it herself. She uses fresh basil leaves, unlike me, so maybe she knows something.
It was already great, but I have been tweaking it plenty over the years to improve it. I now have my own best spaghetti sauce recipe, perfected over three decades of controlled research and trial-and-error adjustments. (The jalapeno experiment was probably a bad idea, and I no longer wear a white lab coat after the cleaning bill.)
Yes, This Is The Best Spaghetti Sauce Recipe Ever. Be Warned.
I’m not kidding when I call this the best spaghetti sauce recipe ever. This is potent stuff. Should you assemble a pot of this sauce, you will likely have no problem getting people to come to your place for dinner. But you’re also going to risk jealousy, hurt feelings, and possibly fisticuffs and octagon challenges. Tread carefully.
There are multiple stories about my gravy nearly causing international incidents, but here’s just two:
The first was an incendiary remark from my father to my mother.
I and my fellow Willingboro dwellers were putting on one of our typical bashes…lots of partiers, food, and booze. Fun times. My parents, who by then had been divorced for about ten years, both made an early appearance and were surprisingly cordial with each other for about ten minutes, or until Dad sampled from the large pot of spaghetti sauce I’d made.
I knew it was coming. Anyone who knew Dad knew it was coming. He informed my mother, “Kurt’s sauce is better than yours, Connie.”
Yes, that is an incendiary thing to say to a half-Italian Mom.
Thankfully my mother wasn’t armed, and the situation didn’t escalate too out of hand. My father’s black eye and broken nose healed up nicely after a couple of weeks, and it only required minor surgery to remove the ladle.
Another incident happened with a friend, and with this one I admit to lighting the match.
Mike “Dev” Devlin, a uniquely lovable individual, had been over for gravy multiple times. At one time in his life, Dev dated an Italian girl (here we go again) named Andrea for a while, and the three of us went out for dinner one night.
At one point during the meal, I deliberately put him on the spot and asked him whose sauce was better, mine or his Italian girlfriend’s.
Dev is known for his ability to say a lot without really saying anything, and he has far better instinct for self-preservation than my father had. He shook his head dismissively, and said something to the effect of, “You’re crazy if you think you can beat home cooking from an Italian girl.”
Out of respect for Andrea and her heritage, I suppressed my laughter, immediately noticing that he didn’t actually answer the question. Andrea apparently didn’t know Dev as well as I did, and she seemed satisfied with his response.
Some months later, he informed me on the phone that they’d broken up. I immediately asked him, “So now that you’re not with her anymore, whose sauce is better?”
He didn’t flinch. “Oh, that’s easy. Yours!”
Years later Dev shared this image on my Facebook timeline. (Forgive me, I can’t find the photo credit.)
Seriously, Be Humble.
The older, wiser me is more humble, aware of the devastating power of my ownership of the best spaghetti sauce recipe ever designed, and its potential to damage the egos of Italian women especially. (Sorry for the gratuitous keyword stuffing, but “best spaghetti sauce recipe” is a popular search term!)
Saying my spaghetti sauce recipe is better than my mother’s is like saying the Beatles are better than Elvis, or that Camden Yards is better than Fenway Park. You could make a strong case, but one wouldn’t exist without the other. The recipe below is truly all that, but Mom’s was the source. She deserves most of the credit. (Love you Mom!)
Anyway, here you go. Enjoy (you will). Incidentally, it’s great for lasagna, baked ziti, pizza or anything you’d incorporate your best spaghetti sauce into…its versatility is one of its strengths.
Just be careful what you say about it, especially to Italian females.
Kurt’s Gravy – or the “Best Spaghetti Sauce Recipe Ever!”
1 pound ground beef
1 pound sweet Italian turkey sausage
1 yellow onion
1 red bell pepper
4 stalks celery
4-5 cloves garlic
5 tablespoons olive oil
3 28 oz. cans Hunt’s crushed tomatoes
1 6 oz. can Hunt’s tomato paste
1 cup Parmesan/Romano cheese
3 tablespoons parsley flakes
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 teaspoon basil
1) Using a chopper (see the photo), chop up the onion, pepper, and celery. Mince the garlic and mix all of the vegetables together in a bowl with the olive oil. Set aside. (I usually cover it and put it in the refrigerator.)
2) In a large skillet, brown the ground beef, chopping it up as it’s cooking. Once there’s no visible red left, empty the skillet onto a paper towel to drain it. If you want to drain it as much as possible, you can put it in a colander and hit it with water. Set aside.
3) Take the skin off of the turkey sausage and break it up into small parts, about the size of a large marble. Using the same skillet, cook the turkey sausage until it’s browned.
4) Drain the sausage if needed, and put it back in the skillet. Mix in the vegetables and olive oil, and simmer over low heat (#2 or #3 on your stove) until the vegetables are good and soft. It can take up to about ten minutes or more, but be patient. Make sure they’re soft. Try tasting a spoonful of the vegetables on occasion to check.
5) As the vegetables are softening, in a large pot, pour in the crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, cheese, and seasonings. Cover the pot.
6) Once the vegetables are soft, pour the entire meat mixture into the sauce pot. Add the browned ground beef. With a large spoon, mix it all together thoroughly.
7) Sit the pot on a large burner and raise the heat to medium low (I use #4). Keep a very close eye on it and stir it frequently until bubbles start to pop at the top. Lower the heat to very low (#1), and allow to simmer. Continue to stir it fairly frequently, every 5-10 minutes or so, and make sure nothing sticks to the bottom. (If anything does, don’t scrape it off, you don’t want anything burnt mixed in.)
8) Cover the pot, put it on the lowest heat and stir occasionally, every ten minutes or so. I usually let it simmer for 2-3 hours, but one hour should be fine. Once it’s simmering, the hard work is done…open up your favorite adult beverage and enjoy the aroma.
– Any pasta works fine, but farfalle, rotini, ziti, or penne works best. Fresh or homemade pasta works great as well.
– If you don’t have one of these choppers, I highly recommend getting one, although a food processor will work well too.
– As Mom always says, the best ingredients are the fresh ones. Go to the store the day of, and get everything brand new. This is a lengthy project.
– Make this worth your effort. Spend some money and get the good stuff. It matters. For the ground beef, use Pat LaFrieda’s or whatever grass fed stuff you can find. For the Parmesan-Romano cheese, find a quality brand at your supermarket deli. Don’t use the Kraft crap on the shelf. Deli-brand cheese will give the gravy a more gooey texture. It’s worth the few extra bucks.
– Yes, use Hunt’s tomatoes. Most other brands will make a perfectly adequate sauce, but Hunt’s always seems to work better for me.
– 4-5 cloves of garlic is a lot, but garlic is a key component of this, so use your discretion. I’ve never ruined a recipe with too much garlic (and I’ve tried!), but I wouldn’t use more than 5 cloves.
– There are ways to make it healthier…use 90% lean ground beef or maybe even use ground turkey (I prefer beef), get crushed tomatoes with no salt added (I do this), or use a larger quantity of vegetables. It won’t make the sauce any less edible, trust me.
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I have tried many soft pretzels, and none compare to the Mart Pretzel Bakery in Cinnaminson NJ, a former staple of the long-departed Pennsauken Mart. I interviewed the founder’s son for a JerseyMan blog post, but it’s now published here…
Soft Pretzel Excellence
If you’re as old as I am and you grew up within a 20-mile radius of Pennsauken, you remember the Pennsauken Mart. And the soft pretzels.
It wasn’t a bad place to get inexpensive clothes, stereo equipment, gifts that you’d never want for yourself, etc. The prices could be pretty nice and I did a lot of Christmas shopping there. Oh, and there was that head shop, too…but I don’t remember much about that…
It wasn’t exactly a pleasant or unique place. It was dingy, overly crowded, and you had to root through a lot of stuff to find anything decent. It was kind of like what an eBay store might look like, if such a thing exists.
The place had one monster thing going for it, though. Soft pretzels.
Whenever I visited the Mart, I had two things in mind…finding something cheap and having a soft pretzel. And definitely not in that order. The pretzels were always worth the trip, the crowds and the depressing atmosphere.
There was always a line for them. While you waited you’d look at the pricing board or the newspaper stories proclaiming their greatness, decided how many you were going to get, and whether you’d deal with the salt or not.
Or you could just watch the pretzels being made…dough rolling out of the machine, experienced fingers flipping the dough into pretzel shape in mere nanoseconds, lightly browned pretzels coming out of the oven.
Once you bought your pretzels (no one ever just got one), there were two choices of mustard, one so super-hot it could sear the back of your brain. (That one was always my choice.) For some reason they never had napkins. Many times I wiped mustard off my face with the wax paper the pretzel came in.
One day, inexplicably, the soft pretzel shop closed. It seemed temporary…there was writing on the glass window that said “Closed due to illness”. But when the pretzel shop didn’t return for several months (I don’t remember the exact length of time, but I know I made many disappointing trips), soon there weren’t enough compelling reasons to visit the Mart anymore.
And not much later, the Pennsauken Mart, that staple of my youth, would be gone.
In the years since I have always believed that it was the closing of the pretzel bakery that caused the Mart’s demise. It was a brutally easy connection to make for anyone who was familiar with the place. It turns out I wasn’t quite right about that.
In a visit to the Mart Pretzel Bakery, I learned the whole story from Shaughn, the son of the owner. The Mart’s fate was already sealed before his father’s illness…it had been bought out through eminent domain. The illness was actually Shaughn’s father having a heart attack; a malady Shaughn believed resulted at least partly from the possibility of his longtime, popular business being shut down.
Indeed, it was a bummer for everyone—until the Mart Pretzel Bakery re-opened in a strip mall in Cinnaminson, and longtime patrons breathed a sigh of relief. No one misses the Mart too much now. (Well, I don’t, anyway. I can’t speak for fans of the head shop.)
Not much has changed…except for a better selection of pretzels, including pretzel dogs, those “everything” pretzels that seem healthy, and the truly off the hook cinnamon sugar pretzels. You can still get a spicy or a very hot mustard. The hot mustard isn’t as blazing as the old one was, but that’s probably not a bad thing. And okay, they’re a tad more expensive. It’s not 1990 anymore after all.
The old sign with the pricing is still there, as is the sign that hung up outside the store in the Mart, which is a nostalgic thing for former Mart patrons. But the lines aren’t long anymore…the Mart Pretzel Bakery is built to handle the demand.
Mart pretzels are still always worth the trip, even if I’m no longer looking for a pair of pants that I can afford. And if you think I’m just waxing nostalgic, check out the Yelp reviews.
In the midst of the pandemic, I took a trip to Wildwood to check on the health of Curley’s Fries for the Summer 2020 issue of JerseyMan Magazine. You can read this article on their website, or click here to see the PDF of the magazine itself.
The Indomitable Boardwalk Fry
As the nation and the state wake up again, Curley’s Fries continues to serve its iconic, crinkle cut fries, from its two locations on the Wildwood boardwalk. It’s a sorely needed sign of Jersey Shore life beginning again.
It takes considerable strength of will, even for hardened Jersey folks, to find positives in a harsh weather day at the shore.
May 22 of this year, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend, was one such day. The thick clouds effectively obscured any potential hint of sunshine. The rain, at times both spitting and heavy, became debilitating when mixed in with the stiff ocean breeze.
Despite the lack of seasonal cooperation, a hardy few were determined to get some steps on the Wildwood boards, most likely for the first time in 2020. It’s a need we natives have, especially this year, if only to have some normalcy again in what has been a monumentally difficult spring.
With an ongoing pandemic to go alongside miserable weather, there were precious few shops open on the boards, and little to help visitors feel like summer again.
Mercifully, there was one saving grace in it all…a ubiquitous French fry stand.
In this trying atmosphere, Curley’s Fries…on the otherwise uninhabited Morey’s Surfside Pier…opened its windows, as their employees showed up to serve their iconic fried potatoes to walk-up patrons for takeout. Or “takeaway”, as they called it, as if to suggest that things aren’t fully normal yet.
While the number of Wildwood visitors this day was very small, many of them…arguably most of them…still made their way to the long established fry counter.
Inside the window, save for the employees wearing masks, nothing was different. One person took orders. Another dropped baskets of chopped potatoes into a fryer and then dumped the finished ones into a tray. Another generously salted them and then scooped piles of fries into buckets for hungry patrons. Unremarkable and repetitive skills all, probably, but it’s an admirable bit of teamwork.
Most gratefully, even as Morey’s has temporarily laid off 80% of their staff, there has been zero decline in the quality of the fries.
They’re still piping hot when served, enough that some will tolerate the seared mouth flesh rather than spend an agonizing few minutes waiting to indulge. The fries have just enough of a crispy crunch on the outside and almost mashed potato level softness on the inside. They’re thick and crinkle-cut, with the skin still attached as required by unwritten boardwalk rules.
All with just enough sea salt for distinctive flavor, and available with multiple rotating dipping sauces, from Horseradish Cream to Old Bay Mayo among others. Along with the old constants of cheese sauce, hot sauce, vinegar, and ketchup.
And anytime some annoying health nut gives you grief about your love for deep fried potato perfection, you can inform them that Curley’s fries are vegan and gluten-free. That’ll shut ‘em up.
If you’re waiting with a friend at Curley’s for a bucket or the larger “barrel” of fries, you can have them hold your place in line and go read the story behind the most iconic fry stand on the Jersey Shore. It’s featured on a sign on the side of the building, but here’s a summed up version:
Yes, there was a Curley, so nicknamed for his curly hair. His full name was Joe “Curley” Marchiano, and he was both an army veteran and a linebacker at Miami University. Curley grew up spending his summers in Coney Island, where his father worked at the Surf Avenue Nathan’s. Indeed, Curley’s fries are similar to Nathan’s in size and structure.
After some years as a concessions manager in other resort towns, in 1978 Marchiano joined up with fried chicken vendor Dick Marchant at Morey’s Surfside Pier. Curley’s part of the deal was fried dough, lemonade shake-ups, and his own brand of French fries. (Incidentally, Curley’s lemonade is no slouch either.)
Almost immediately, it became clear that patrons came for the fries, and the stand was soon renamed for Curley, in a rare recognition of genius.
As the board telling the story notes, there isn’t any real secret to the greatness of Curley’s fries…it reveals right there that Curley used potato cutters from Germany, and cooked them in peanut oil. Maybe the potato cutters are really difficult to find or something, but there’s no more to it than that.
Marchiano passed in 2000; twenty years later, his recipe of fried potato greatness lives on…even on a windy and wet day on the Wildwood boards, in the midst of a pandemic and a crippled economy.
Sometimes success is simple. Get a German potato cutter, find a peanut oil supplier, and fry and sell sliced spuds at the beach.
How much of a foodie staple is Curley’s? All you need to know is the reaction to a gag the Morey’s folks pulled a year ago. Most people well know that on April 1, they should have their antenna up for pranks. But Curley’s fans were taking no chances.
On March 31, 2019, Morey’s released a press statement announcing the retirement of Curley’s two locations, to be replaced by vegan stands called “Greenery’s”. Greenery’s would be offering kale chips, roasted chickpeas, and other healthy greens that no one actually likes. In an age where every institution from baseball to politics seems to care only about targeting “millennials”, it was actually a well-crafted April Fool’s joke.
The reaction was swift and severe. NJ.com, which had listed Curley’s fries among their “64 Most Iconic Jersey Foods” just two weeks earlier, reported that the accompanying Facebook post had 4,000 comments the next day:
“I go to the boardwalk just to eat Kale chips!! Said no one ever….”
“Kale chips? Who the F$&k wants kale chips? The one thing U looked forward to is now gone! New Jersey becoming the East Coast California!”
“I legit cried. Stupidest decision ever. This place is a Wildwood trademark…. Huge mistake.”
Even Curley’s subsequent “April Fools!” reveal on Facebook provoked an agitated response:
“Glad to hear that it was all a joke BUT…that was not nice to do, especially the day before April Fool’s day!”
“Threatening to take away my Curley’s Fries is no laughing matter!!”
“Not funny at all.”
You can still find the original “Greenery’s” press release on Morey’s website, (www.moreyspiers.com). Its politically correct tone is priceless. Here’s this writer’s favorite pull quote: “For the last fifty years Morey’s Piers has been growing and re-inventing itself to keep up with an ever-changing marketplace.”
Most businesses take themselves too seriously. Thankfully Morey’s isn’t one of them. But yes, that was a tense moment. Forsaking Curley’s Fries for kale chips probably would have caused a justifiable outrage.
Much has been said and written about heroes on the front lines in recent months. First responders, doctors and nurses in hospitals, nursing home attendants…even supermarket employees, who had suddenly found themselves in a high risk occupation.
All of the accolades and appreciation, and accompanying hazard pay, is well-deserved. Yet when a flu virus not only causes double the death count as a typical flu season, but also devastates an economy, sometimes what we need more than anything else is to see something normal again.
As ruffled as South Jersey became at a mere joke suggesting Curley’s fries would be replaced in 2019, in 2020 we’re grateful for anything we love sticking around. When there isn’t even any baseball, things can seem especially bleak. Suddenly, the availability of world class French fries at the beach is appreciably more meaningful.
The celebrated Jersey Shore fixture that is Curley’s is still alive. The two-story fry-shaped signs still standing on the boardwalk, an iconic food stand remaining open on the most miserable of May days, is one anchor of hope that on the other side of all of this, our favorite institutions will still be here.
Curley’s 1, Covid 0.
So I had this big mess of Camden Yards food posts that went everywhere, and Google didn’t seem to like any of them. So I figured I’d combine them all, and just make them one nice big post about Camden Yards food. Enjoy!
Boog’s BBQ + Eutaw Street Food at Camden Yards
When first-timers visit Oriole Park at Camden Yards, they’re almost universally told to “try Boog’s BBQ.” The smoke wafting from the tent on Eutaw Street has been a feature of Camden Yards since its opening in 1992.
Long lines form at Boog’s BBQ stand, especially on high attendance nights. Fans get their picture taken with the large first baseman from the Orioles’ salad days, order a sandwich or platter of pit beef or turkey, enhance it at a banging condiments stand, and either sit at a Eutaw Street picnic table to eat or watch batting practice.
(Please note friends…I published this in 2018, and food in ballparks changes a lot, so I apologize for any inaccuracies. I am currently working on a retool and hope to have this content updated.)
The pit beef is recommended most by online reviewers, but the turkey sandwich is pretty good too, and the platters with slaw and beans offer decent value; you likely won’t be hungry afterward. One Orioles employee suggested to me to bring your own bread and get your sandwich “naked” to get more meat on your plate. Worth the effort.
Try to get to Boog’s BBQ early, if you don’t want to miss any of the game.
Dempsey’s, named for 1983 World Series MVP Rick Dempsey, is a restaurant built into the warehouse. It features brick walls, O’s memorabilia, and beer taps with craft brews like Rain Delay IPA (click here to see why Dempsey is associated with rain delays).
The menu is pub-style and includes appetizers like crab cakes and rock fish tacos, and the main menu is mostly burgers and sandwiches, like the Dempsey Club. There’s also the “Walk-Off”: a Roma sausage in a pretzel roll with Old Bay crab dip. Save money and appetite for that one.
If you want to try Dempsey’s and not miss any of the game, you have to get to a Eutaw Street entrance as soon as the gates open. Long lines form very quickly, especially on high attendance nights.
Don’t miss Rick’s poetic dedication to Memorial Stadium inside.
Elsewhere on Eutaw are a few of the unique food stands at Camden Yards. There’s the Bud & Burgers and Stuggy’s Gourmet Hot Dogs at the north end, where you can order unusual burgers and dogs (the crab mac and cheese dog is very popular) in case a simple dog doesn’t wow you.
There’s also a Eutaw Street Market in the warehouse where you can find grab and go items, and at the south end is a Eutaw Street Gyro Grill. You may lament the disappearance of the “other” BBQ stand, but the gyros and spinach pies are pretty good. Besides, Boog’s BBQ is plenty BBQ enough.
More Oriole Park Food Options – Crab Stuff!
Oriole Park is still in Maryland last time I looked, so crab stuff is pretty popular. Here are three more favorite Camden Yards food options of mine, just because I love Old Bay…
1) Crab Dip Waffle Fries. This is a pretty big go-to item for Orioles fans. If you’re familiar with the Chick-Fil-A waffle fries (and who isn’t?), they’re like them, but topped with Maryland crab dip sauce, and you can shake on some Old Bay seasoning at a condiment stand.
Get them at Old Bay Seafood, Freestate Fries or the Flying Dog stands, and get a fork and napkins…you’ll thank me.
2) The Crab Chipper. The Chipper stand has become one of the more popular Camden Yards food options – and this Crab Chipper features kettle chips (or pork rinds!) topped with crab meat, white cheddar, green onions and Old Bay…so they’re, you know, kind of like fancy nachos.
It’s a decent quantity of food too, especially if you get them in a souvenir helmet. Way salty though, so grab a drink with it…
3) The Old Bay Seafood Crab Cake. I remember in the early days of Oriole Park watching a friend of mine shell out $4 for a crab cake the size of a golf ball. This was before ballparks were known for food options. Hope he enjoyed it.
Today the crab cakes may be more expensive, but they’re now appropriately baseball-sized and much tastier – the Orioles had a chef sample 50 local crab cakes (!) to come up with a recipe for this delicacy. (Hopefully not at once.) The Old Bay stands are in the lower and upper concourses.
There you go…three crab-tasty Camden Yards food options. But you can go cheap here as well.
Can You Bring Food Into Camden Yards?
The short answer is yes, you can…the Orioles allow a 16*16*8 soft-sided bag or cooler, so long as it doesn’t contain alcohol or potential projectiles.
But the best part of this money-saving tip is the possibilities you have with the numerous outside vendors…so here are three tips on where you can find cheap outside grub to bring into the Yard.
1) Pickles Pub/Slider’s/The Bullpen. I’m not sure which of these three corner pubs sets up all of the tents and outdoor grills and full bars, but I expect it’s all of them. The three establishments are across the street from the ballpark on Washington Street, and the entire area gets packed with pre- and post-game partiers.
You can get a hefty dog, sausage, burger, or crab cake sandwich here for much less than you’d pay inside the ballpark, of course, and there are tables with people selling peanuts, pistachios and bottled water too.
Best part? Have a cheap Natty Boh while you’re filling your goody bag…since you can’t get cheap beer OR Natty Boh inside the ballpark.
2) Vendors On Howard And Conway Streets. There are a plethora of vendors with grills selling dogs, sausages and chicken sandwiches, and they’ll offer you a nice deal if you’re willing to haggle and offer to buy more at a discount.
As with the vendors near Pickles Pub, on Conway Street, you can also buy much cheaper gear and souvenirs. This is ideal for people arriving by Light Rail…the vendors are right there across the street.
3) The Peanut Church. The Old Otterbein United Methodist Church is nicknamed the “Peanut Church”…they’ve been selling fresh bags of roasted peanuts cheaply since Camden Yards opened in 1992, and they’ve used the profits to maintain the church with a new roof and painting and such. If you’re a person of faith you’ll probably think it’s a cool thing. It’s on Conway Street, and if you’re coming from the Inner Harbor you can’t miss it.
Finally, there’s a Jimmy John’s and a Chipotle just steps away, if you want bring food into Camden Yards from someone familiar. But that’s kinda boring.
So there you go…some food options at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. Enjoy, and let me know when you’ll be there.