Here's Why You're Wrong About Harrisburg
Pennsylvania’s state capital feels like it’s up to something—something good
Every now and then, I have this thing where I like to drive over to Harrisburg, specifically the Broad Street Market, a fixture in Pennsylvania’s state capital, just to see what’s doing. Here since the mid-1800’s, which isn’t even all that long, not in Mid-Atlantic market terms, you will find, in not one but two appealing old market halls, a little bit of everything that you come expecting to find in this part of Pennsylvania, and lots else.
Grass-fed meats, local Brie, natural honey and put-up peppers, bulk spices, bright purple turnips from a farm down the road, pickles, homemade kimchi, pies both shoofly and whoopie, cheesesteaks, thoughtful floral arrangements, expensive-looking baked goods at friendly prices, you-buy-we-fry butterfish and porgy and haddock, not to mention the crab cakes for less than two dollars, for pernil at the Puerto Rican lunch place, goat pepper stew, tacos, beer on tap, and then, there is the coffee, perhaps the best cup in town, at Elementary Coffee, and they’re roasting right on premises.
The same, pleasant people always seem to be here, back behind the counter, at least on my semi-frequent visits; shots of espresso are always well balanced, there’s usually a line of patrons and vendors waiting patiently, and it’s one of those little touchstones that help make life as cozy and comfortable as it can be, when you are all grown up. I might visit one hundred different places besides Harrisburg in between, but walking back through the doors on market days, past the organic veg, past the young ladies in their print dresses and headcoverings, stretching out yet another batch of soft pretzels, fighting my way through the early lunch rush, there is Elementary, underneath those tall windows that let every shred of light in, windows that appear untouched since before there were fifty states, and for a brief moment, all is right with the world.
The market is special—lively, happy, seemingly representative of this diverse city of 50,000; Harrisburg does not need much more than this to lure me in, again and again, but over time, I have learned that there is more—so much more than I had imagined.
Harrisburg, if you are fortunate enough to remain unaware of the ins and outs of Mid-Atlantic provincialism, is a nearly-aggressively overlooked kind of place, often ridiculed by its own people, let alone the neighbors—the only local I ever knew used to refer to the city exclusively as Horrible Harrisburg. Also, because this is where their state is run from, you won’t find many Pennsylvanians ready to give a kind word. The rest of the planet most likely does not know that Harrisburg exists.
But it does, and very much so—ever attractive in that ratty, terribly historic, this-probably-used-to-be-a-big-deal way, Harrisburg has been making some changes, there are good things creeping in, new things, interesting things, things that are bringing a new energy to this tight grid of narrow streets, lined with all the old and beautiful architecture, down along the Susquehanna River. The way we’ve been thinking about Harrisburg, it’s wrong, I suspect—things feel different now, like something good is happening, or is about to happen. I keep going back, and I think you should consider a visit, as well—start with these essential stops.
One in a string of old Mid-Atlantic markets patronized primarily by locals, your visit to town should be on a market day, and there are three of them—Thursday, Friday, Saturday. I like Thursdays and Fridays, which are both quite busy, but without the crowding that can occur on Saturdays. Driving up Broad Street, when you see the Midtown Scholar Bookstore (a regional institution, stop by), you’re there. Park the car somewhere in the janky network of parking fields and side alleys, and walk in, beginning at the front shed, where you will find the very good Raising The Bar bakery, selling gorgeous strata packed with vegetables and cheese, pizzas with fresh, local mozzarella at Knead, bacon fried cabbage pirogies at Pikowski’s, earl grey ice creams at Urban Churn—on and on it goes. Across the market courtyard, where everyone sits in the sun eating lunch, whenever weather permits, the second shed—the red brick one, even more appealing than the first, visually—is where you find, along with so many other things, the well-curated Radish and Rye, selling lots of organic produce, along with some fine cheeses.
Flush with that warm feeling you get when you walk into something expecting very little, only to have your expectations exceeded, you exit the back end of the Broad Street Market, only to discover, just across Verbeke Street, some whole other thing. This converted network of industrial buildings is anchored by a working brewery, with a modern brewpub serving an earnest, farm-to-table menu—there’s a courtyard, and a rooftop deck, if the weather’s good. But that’s just the beginning—take the time to appreciate the art, hanging everywhere; there are many working studios within the complex—see what’s open, and say hello.
Harrisburg appears to really enjoy Italian food, and you get it pretty much everywhere, sometimes in restaurants that aren’t even specifically Italian, but nowhere quite so warm and likable as the Alvaro family’s simple Uptown establishment, where the welcome will typically be cheerful, and the food tastes just as food does, when cooked with love. The menu rotates daily, so look up on the board—nearly delicate eggplant parmesan, served with an olive oil, garlic and chili spaghetti on Thursdays? Pure Italian-American soul food. Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings, there’s a complete dinner menu—call ahead for reservations.