They once seemed like original equipment, perpetual-motion machines, but a few of the iron men at the Reading Terminal Market have made their exits of late. You stay open 120 years, there's going to be turnover.
First, Harry Ochs, the inimitable butcher, passed on. He used to hold court off center court, breaking down sides of beef. You can still see the old meat hooks.
A few months ago, it was Domenic Spataro's turn. The man made it to 94, coming to work every day, presiding over the last hurrah of the chopped-egg-and-olive sandwich, living proof that, as his lunch-counter sign once promised, "Drink buttermilk and live forever."
I've been shopping and schmoozing — mostly schmoozing — at the grand old market for 34 years now, and I take it personally when a favorite merchant departs. Or an errant Coke sign winks on. Or when my team puts up points: Last week, the pork sandwich from DiNic's beat Katz's Deli, the New York pastrami legend, in one of those TV slapdowns.
There has always been the abiding pull of the space itself, the actual original equipment, dating to 1892, unendingly alive with the clatter of fish carts, the slap of turkey cutlets being walloped with the flat of a cleaver, the scent of garden mint.
It's a tough old-timer, a survivor in a city where so much has been scraped away. "The defiantly beating heart of old, original Philadelphia," I wrote about it once — a touchstone in a digital age when roots are shallow and nothing is etched forever in stone.
One thing nobody is going to miss, though, is the dreary east side of the market. For decades, it has been a jumble of walk-ins and packing crates, the stuff that supermarkets stash behind one-way mirrors.
Someone had a bright idea a while back. Why not put all that stuff down in the basement, replace it with a few bells and whistles. After all, food business was booming — thanks to the recession — up 25 percent since 2004. Six million visitors tramped through the market last year!
If some stalls were shuffled around and the new space opened up, there'd be room for more. And that's what they've done. Next week, the market will be saluting the first fruits of a $3? million renovation project, though some of the newcomers (for one, a touted sheep's-milk cheeserie) are still unfinished.
But there are already sparkling restrooms, doubled in size, filling an urgent need. And next door to the updated demo kitchen, Anna Florio's La Cucina at the Market, there's something the market has lacked for more than a century; a dedicated space for small parties and earnest confabs. Most of all, it will house a handsome exhibit about the rich (little-known) history of public markets in the city.
Who knew the room would go casting about for a name? I found out when I was being feted by my colleagues at The Inquirer on the occasion of my retirement from the paper a year ago. It was announced that a new Rick Nichols Room was about to take shape at the market (applause!), right next to the site of the fetid old restrooms (laughter!). I thought it was a joke. But it was for real. At 10 a.m. Monday, a gaggle of luminaries, including the mayor, will cut the ribbon and christen the renovations and the new room.
Then, each day for the rest of the week, it will be the scene of talks and demos, starting with the Pennsylvania General Store's Michael Holahan, giving the inside story of the city's love affair with chocolate at noon Monday, and at 5 p.m., with the game-changing restaurateur Steve Poses, reprising his days as a young turk at Frog. (He'll cook the dish he served there on opening night in 1973: Thai chicken curry with broccoli and peanuts.)
Bloggers will hold forth. Local food mavens will convene. Ice cream samples will vanish. The venerable Sal Vetri, dad of the famous Marc, will be in the house, serving up his signature South Philly-style meatballs.
Up on the wall in the Rick Nichols Room, it will note that, yes, I have been a fierce champion of the market, that I fought for years — in columns and editorials in this newspaper — to keep it open when the Convention Center's construction threatened to close it down, that I celebrated its resilience and vitality, showing it off to chefs from around the country (Thomas Keller and Michel Richard among them), and serious food thinkers (Michael Pollan among them).
But I'd like it recorded that it was the likes of Harry Ochs and Domenic Spataro who kept the torch burning, that it was the market's new fan base (after the dark days of 25 years ago) who voted with its feet, that it was the everydayness of the place, and the Everybodyness of the place, and the Goldrush apples, and the Lancaster scrapple, and the Chinese pork dumplings that have animated its old bones, kept the blood pumping.
So it is the beating heart that we'll be celebrating next week, and, for what it's worth, I approve that message.