THE ITALIAN Market just marked a century in business, and it didn't get there by catering to dietary fads. The vendors' hallmark in this area around 9th Street between Washington Avenue and Christian Street is patient, high-quality craftsmanship, developed over time.
Originally established by old-world cheesemakers, butchers and sausage-grinders, and reveling in its traditional trappings, this is not where you'd look for trailblazing vegan foods.
Sure, there are scattered options: Sabrina's Cafe (910 Christian St.), after all, has competed in our vegan cheesesteak contest. And you can find cookies and whoopie pies from Vegan Treats at Gleaner's Cafe (917 S. 9th St.) or grab a vegan wrap over at Lyas Cafe (802 Christian St.). A selection of vegan items has, it seems, become mandatory for new Philly cafes.
But just off the corner of 9th and Christian, there's a whole 'nother level of animal-free innovation: Superior Pasta, a 67-year market fixture, since January has been rolling out vegan versions of its handmade specialties, showing how traditional food techniques can blend with 21st-century ethics, with delicious results.
Proprietor Joe Lomanno explains: "A longtime customer named Lisa [Timmons] came in all the time to get our marinara, and lots of meatballs. One time I remarked how she must love our meatballs, and she said, 'Actually I don't. They're for my husband. I'm vegan.' "
Timmons continued the tale: "I said maybe Joe should look into doing a vegan version of his celebrated meatballs, because that's their specialty, and he said he was open to it." Next time Timmons stopped in, she was surprised to be invited to try the latest batch.
It wasn't just a thank you or a PR move - Lomanno, his son Joe Lomanno Jr. and head pasta maker Rodger Holst had been carefully testing and retesting the vegan meatball concept, blending textured soy protein with nutritional yeast and almond milk, and finally with raw cashews, to achieve a surprisingly, almost disturbingly meaty vegan meatball.
"Rodger got excited about it," noted Lomanno Sr., "because he has a lot of vegan friends." Their feedback helped the team adjust their recipes.
And it paid off: While vegan meatballs were already available in Philly (I reviewed IKEA's in this V for Vegan post), Superior's fresh-made, rolled-by-hand entries have easily grabbed the title of most amazing vegan meatballs around.
The same can be said of Superior's vegan ravioli, both the "3 cheese" and porcini varieties. Lomanno chronicled the trial-and-error process for getting the perfect texture in the filling through "about five different tries," eventually achieving the desired smoothness.
"In the case of the porcini, most people would not be able to tell the difference" between the vegan and regular versions, Lomanno said, beaming. "The cheese ones are good, too, but they're not gonna fool anybody." I may not have been fooled, but I can tell you that the extensive testing paid off in another Superior product.
Having conquered ravioli, the team moved on to vegan scallopini, then spinach lasagna, which made its debut last week, another smooth and flavorful hit. Again it was the result of careful testing and modification over time. Says Joe Lomanno Jr., "The vegan mozzarella helped a great deal on that one. We tried several kinds and settled on [the brand] Daiya as the one that really worked best."
Rather than resting on his laurels, Lomanno Sr. is looking to expand both the vegan line and its availability. He's in talks with a handful of upscale grocers to carry the meatballs, for starters.
Also available is a vegan spinach pasta (the traditional recipe contains eggs), and "a vegan eggplant parm will be coming soon, but we still haven't got it right," Lomanno candidly admits, insisting that they achieve something "on a par with our wonderful regular eggplant parm."
As for longtime vegan Timmons, having gotten these meatballs rolling, she says that "now I'm inspired to do more, to speak up more" about potential vegan options in local shops.
And why not? If such a traditional bastion of time-honored quality can apply its skills to new vegan foods, what's stopping, say, your own neighborhood deli?
The plant-based treats are already garnering acclaim as people learn about them, says Lomanno. "We have vegans coming in here pretty excited, maybe because there's not a lot of this kind of food, Italian-style foods, available to them."
At the same time, he's finding some meat-eating customers picking up the new items, either to try themselves or for a family member. He cited the growing number of family celebrations involving one or two vegans. "People want to have something good to feed to a loved one that happens to eat differently," he said.
"So, however it goes, we're gonna stick with it," he explained, with a mix of compassion and shrewd business sense. "Let's face it: The vegan community is growing - and in terms of food, it's a preference based on a personal commitment. That's not gonna go away."
Vance Lehmkuhl is a cartoonist, writer, musician and 12-year vegan. "V for Veg" chronicles plant-based eating in and around Philadelphia.
VforVeg@phillynews.com or @V4Veg on Twitter.