Do you want to discover where to get the softest tortillas in town? The crispest biscotti? The tangiest Vietnamese barbecue? Of course you do! Unfortunately, finding all the great places to eat in such food destinations as Philadelphia, Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco can take a lifetime. To speed up the process, we tracked down nine insiders who know every butcher, baker and cannoli maker worth knowing. They are seasoned guides whose tours explore America's hidden culinary corners, and they enjoy nothing more than seeing the look on the face of somebody tasting their first sublime tamale or shrimp dumpling. Read on for a listing of these food gurus and a few of their favorite shops and restaurants.
THE ITALIAN MARKET
The guide Celeste Morello is a criminologist and a historian of the Italian Market on Ninth Street in South Philadelphia, where her family has been in the cheese and trash businesses for a century. She is currently co-writing the Italian Market Cookbook. How has she liked living in this food-lover's paradise for the past 17 years? "To be honest, hon, I'm used to it by now," she says.
The tour One of the country's last surviving outdoor street markets is on Ninth Street. The sidewalks are jammed with vendors hawking fruits, vegetables, flowers and fish, just as they've been doing, rain or shine, for more than 80 years. The market is also the birthplace of tenor Mario Lanza (1921) and the Philly steak sandwich (1930).
Top shop D'Angelo Brothers (909 S. Ninth St.; 215-923-5637), founded in 1911, makes impressive pancetta and 45 different types of sausage. It also offers an astounding variety of wild game: lion, camel, emu, kangaroo and, during hunting season, Scottish grouse from the royal grounds of Balmoral Castle.
Must eat Sicilian roasted-pork sandwiches from Cannuli's (937 S. Ninth St.; 215-922-2988), where lean young pigs are rubbed with Grandma Cannuli's special seasoning and baked in gigantic ovens.
Details Two-hour walking tours are $8 to $25 per person (rates vary in inverse proportion to the size of the group); 215-334-6008.
AN ETHNIC ODYSSEY
The guide For a book she planned to write, Evelyn Thompson spent two years making an exhaustive, street-by-street study of Chicago's ethnic restaurants and markets. She never wrote the book, but she shares her research with the small tour groups that she ferries around in her Toyota station wagon. "I carry a knife, cutting board and paper plates," she says.
The tour Thompson keeps a list of addresses all across Chicago for authentic Jamaican, Mexican, Cuban, Ghanaian, Nigerian, Vietnamese and Persian food. The number of stops on the tour can be varied to suit stamina and appetite.
Top shop Argo Bakery (2812 W. Devon Ave.; 773-764-6322), which makes a chewy Georgian bread called shoti. "It's baked in a pit oven with brick walls. It's fantastic," Thompson says.
Must eat The huge ginger cookies known as totoes and the gizzado, or coconut tart, at the Caribbean American Bakery (1539 W. Howard St.; 773-761-0700).
Details Four-hour custom tours in Thompson's car are $25 to $40 per person; 773-465-8064.