How a Pennsport beer garden became a go-to for South Philly Italian food

There is no bouncer at Pennsport Beer Boutique, the bottle shop and beer garden that holds down a wedge-shaped parcel between Moyamensing and Third Streets. But, to enter, you will have to get past the sleepy gaze of Charlie, an approximately 18-foot-tall Doberman pinscher.

“He’s friendly,” a man assured me as I paused on my way in. “He just needs to see your ID.”

Actually, just about anyone — dogs and babies included — can gain access to this place, which is, perhaps, the ultimate combination of new and old South Philadelphia.

When it opened in 2015, it looked like vintage Pennsport: plastered with “Kevin Dougherty for Judge” signs from a fund-raising event hosted there. But on a recent evening, I encountered a group of clean-cut firemen sharing a post-shift drink, young families with strollers, older folks with thick Italian accents, and bearded hipsters with miscellaneous piercings. Plus, you can choose an obscure craft beer from the long row of refrigerators, and pair it with old-school South Philly Italian food from Caffe Valentino, the moderately upscale restaurant across the street. (Ask the bartender to call in your wood-fired pizza or pasta order, and a waiter in incongruously formal attire will lug it across the street, along with dishware and cutlery.)

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Charlie, the owner’s dog, greets patrons at Pennsport Beer Boutique. From left are Will Gonzalez, Pat Moran, Stephen Becker and Rusty Crowell. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)

The site — once a gas station, and later a doctor’s office — was reimagined by Heather Cox, previously a singer who performed with Opera Philadelphia, and her husband, Cosimo Tricarico, who owns Caffe Valentino. Her ambition was modest: The food service wasn’t even part of the plan, but something that evolved due to customer demand.

“The biggest thing we did was to turn what was a parking lot into the only beer garden that operates 365 days a year in Philadelphia,” Cox said.

In a way, it was a bold move, to turn parking spots — in a car-happy neighborhood packed with auto-repair shops — into a patio filled with pavers, picnic tables, and arborvitae shrubs. Community approval wasn’t gained easily.

But these days, there’s a Philly Foodworks CSA pick-up, a group of regulars who come in after their bocce league, a stack of board games to borrow (though for those, or even a glass for your beer, you may be asked to leave your ID as collateral). Neighbors will stop in to fill a growler or order a draft beer and sit at the granite-topped bar, eating free peanuts and watching sports on the flatscreen TV.

While I perused the beer case — which is carefully labeled and obsessively organized by region, then by brewery — the bartender dialed the number for Caffe Valentino to place an order: grilled chicken and rice, for Charlie. I went in a different direction, with the New Belgium Dayblazer ($3) and a Greek pizza ($14). Charlie, I figured, isn’t there to judge.

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Rusty Crowell and Jan Crowell, with Zilla, their pet bearded dragon, at Pennsport Beer Boutique. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)

Pennsport Beer Boutique
242 Wharton St., 215-372-7423, pennsportbeerboutique.com

When to go: For the ultimate Pennsport experience, wait until New Year’s Day, and drink with Mummers. Otherwise, consider stopping by Fridays, 7-9 p.m., for free beer sampling from visiting breweries. It’s open Monday-Thursday, noon to 11 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, noon to midnight; Sunday, noon to 10 p.m.

Bring: Your preferred beer-drinking companion, whoever or whatever that may be. “A couple days ago, someone brought their lizard,” Cox said.

What to order: You can buy only beer here, so Cox tries to track down obscure or exclusive ones. Among the most sought-after is Stillwater Artisanal’s Insetto, a sour ale made with Italian plums that sold out within 48 hours (they’re trying to restock the $5.25 cans). The pizza, though not what I’d consider among the best in the city, far surpasses most beer garden fare.

Bathroom situation: A very civilized, modernized, one-person-at-a-time affair.

Sounds like: Indoors, an inexplicable, 93-decibel TouchTunes odyssey that wandered from Jennifer Lopez to Taproot in the span of a single hour. Outdoors, the rush of Pennsport traffic from all directions, just beyond the shrubs and fencing.

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Will Gonzalez grabs a beer from the refrigerator at Pennsport Beer Boutique. (TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer)