Philly’s Italian Market sees a busy Christmas Eve, as families shop for a taste of tradition

Jenni Ramos will have the Mexican flag on her plate this Christmas Eve. The pozole she’s making will have white corn, green lettuce, and red radishes sprinkled over the top. A winter tradition, the dish will be how she’ll get a hint of normalcy this holiday.

Her family is in Mexico, which, like the U.S., has been ravaged by the pandemic. Her husband’s family is in New Jersey — which feels just as far away, thanks to travel restrictions.

“Unfortunately, because of the circumstances we’re living in, the whole family won’t be around and it’s going to be a very, very small affair,” Ramos said in Spanish, during a break from shopping on South 9th Street. “But we can’t forget to celebrate, especially during this time of year.”

Customers wait in line at Anastasi’s Seafood in the Italian Market. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Italian Market neighborhood on Thursday was full of people picking up special ingredients, showcasing the importance of food to winter customs. Some shoppers said the pandemic motivated them to closely follow long-held family traditions. Others were inspired to try something completely new.

Ramos and her husband live in Northeast Philly, but come south to pick up specialty items like tostadas and tamales. They’re regulars at places like Tortilleria San Roman, one of the area’s many shops offering a taste of their cultural heritage.

“We make it a point to come here,” said Rafael Ramos, Jenni’s husband. “The neighborhood’s atmosphere is contagious, between the Mexicans, Italians, everyone.”

Jenni and Rafael Ramos got some fresh tostadas and some last-minute ingredients for their Christmas Eve meal, which will include pozole.
Jenni and Rafael Ramos got some fresh tostadas and some last-minute ingredients for their Christmas Eve meal, which will include pozole. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Even as stores limited the numbers allowed inside, and people made sure to physically distance themselves as they roamed the streets wearing masks, Jenni and Rafael said it felt like Christmas.

More than half a million people have contracted the coronavirus in Pennsylvania, per state records, and hospitals hold more COVID-19 patients now than during the spring wave. In Philadelphia and elsewhere, health officials reported a spike in cases following Thanksgiving, and they’ve urged residents to keep celebrations to immediate household members.

South Philly resident Carol Garafolo disbanded her regular Christmas dinner, which typically feeds more than two dozen. But her Italian family is not abandoning their Christmas Eve Feast of the Seven Fishes.

Garafolo outside Anastasi's in the Italian Market
A pandemic wasn’t going to stop Carol Garafolo from getting the final component of her Feast of the Seven Fishes meal. She left Anastasi’s with trays of fried shrimp and scallops. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

Garafolo said she already had her stuffed calamari, seafood salad, and spaghetti with mussels. She’s also doing a baccala stew, preparing the salted cod just like her grandmother used to make.

Since the 1970s, the final items for the feast have been coming from Anastasi Seafood on 9th and Washington. Garafolo left the fish market Thursday loaded with trays of fried shrimp and scallops. She planned to share them with her sister, who lives in the suburbs.

If they can’t eat at the same table, Garafolo explained, the family can at least swap dishes and enjoy the same menu in their respective homes.

Crabs for sale at Anastasi’s Seafood on Christmas Eve at the Italian Market.
Crabs for sale at Anastasi’s Seafood on Christmas Eve at the Italian Market. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

“She cooked some things, I cooked some things, I picked up this stuff today,” said Garafolo. “I’m going to drive to her house shortly, and then we’re going to divvy up the food.”

While some took comfort in tradition, others are taking the time to try something different.

Mary An Cheng outside a Philly supermarket
Mary An Cheng traveled from Lebanon to South Philly to grab some last-minute produce for her Christmas dinner. (Ximena Conde/WHYY)

“We usually go to my uncle’s house and have a feast,” said Mary An Cheng, who drove nearly two hours from Lebanon to her favorite Vietnamese supermarket in South Philly for last-minute items. “It is a feast … maybe a minimum of 10 dishes.”

With a large family pitching in, lechon would usually take center stage, with the roasted pig supported by side dishes like pancit stir-fry and crispy rolled lumpia.

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