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Road Show: Stephen Costello in Philadelphia

The tenor, a native of the City of Brotherly Love, gives ERIC MYERS an insider look at his hometown’s cultural and culinary highlights.

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Portrait of Costello by Dario Acosta
© Dario Acosta 2015
Philadelphia Picks  
 
RESTAURANTS  
BUTCHER AND SINGER 
1500 Walnut St., (215) 732-4444; 
SONNY'S CHEESESTEAKS 
228 Market St., (215) 629-5760;
 
PARC 
227 S. Eighteenth St., (215) 545-2262; 
 
SQUARE ON SQUARE 
1905 Chestnut St., (215) 568-0088;

ALMA DE CUBA
 
1623 Walnut Street, (215) 988-1799;

HOTEL
  
THE RITTENHOUSE 
210 West Rittenhouse Square,
(215) 546-9000; 

SHOPPING
 
HOLT'S CIGAR COMPANY  
1522 Walnut St., (215) 732-8500;
www.holts.com 
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Parc
© Franz Marc Frei/agefotostock 2015
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A view of downtown Philadelphia, known as Center City
© Phil Degginger/Alamy 2015
 

Less than 100 miles from New York, Philadelphia is a huge, sprawling city with a distinct vibe. Famously derided by humorists such as W. C. Fields and David Ives, and often dismissed by New Yorkers who have never even been there, Philadelphia is nonetheless a city with no inferiority complex. Featuring an elegant historic center ringed with lush, woodsy suburbs and gritty ethnic enclaves, it is one of the great melting pots, and it looks and feels like nowhere else. It also boasts some of the best classical music on the East Coast. Just ask tenor Stephen Costello, a Philadelphia native who goes back every chance he gets. 

“I’ve seen it go through a lot of artistic changes,” he says. “At one point, it was as if the arts were dead in Philadelphia. When Yannick Nézet-Séguin came in, it just revived the entire Philadelphia Orchestra. Now people are interested — they love coming to hear it. There are a lot of music organizations in Philadelphia that are huge. You’ve got the Orchestra, you’ve got Curtis Institute. Around the corner you have the Academy of Vocal Arts, which turns out some of the best classical singers [Costello included]. And of course Opera Philadelphia was a company that was struggling for a long time. Then it was taken over by David Devan, and he’s turned it into something else — he’s got the budget up, he’s getting really fine artists to come, and he’s doing new pieces that are attracting attention. It’s great! And all these companies are within the same six or seven blocks.”

Those are just the music organizations; there’s also the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Barnes Collection and plenty of great live theater. In this venerable city, there are dozens of historic sites, many clustered in the very walkable Society Hill district, including the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall and even the house where Betsy Ross is said to have created the first American flag. Downtown, known as Center City, offers uniquely charming streets, alleyways and mews. 

Opera fans flock to the Academy of Music, built in 1857, where Opera Philadelphia stages most of its performances. An exquisite theater, it is the oldest in America that still presents opera. Enrico Caruso sang on its stage, and Martin Scorsese made use of its ornate rococo interior to stand in for the long-vanished New York Academy of Music in his film of Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence. In its elegance and intimacy, it recalls the great opera houses of Europe, such as La Fenice and the Opéra Comique.

Costello also advises music-lovers to check out the the central branch of the Library of Philadelphia, at 19th and Vine, “which has an amazing music section. So does the library on [the University of Pennsylvania] campus. They also have the Ormandy listening room, where you can go and listen to recordings of just about anything. I’ve spent a lot of time in both of those places.”

Every Philadelphia native has his favorite restaurants in this famous foodie town. Its eating establishments run the gamut, from the stand-up-and-slurp-oysters informality of Reading Terminal Market to the elegance of the Waterworks, a former water-pumping station dating from the early nineteenth century that overlooks the Schuylkill River. One of Costello’s favorites is Butcher and Singer, created by celebrated local restaurateur Stephen Starr. “I had the best steak ever there,” says Costello. “It’s in an old bank, and they still have the original vault. Their burger is rated one of the best in Philadelphia.”

After performances, he favors Parc, a French bistro across from the Curtis Institute near Rittenhouse Square. When he’s in the mood for Chinese, Square on Square is a reliable standby he’s frequented since his student days. When he has a hankering for a true Philadelphia cheesesteak — a local classic consisting of a grilled skirt-steak sandwich topped with melted cheese — he heads to Sonny’s, on Market Street in Center City, “which has been there forever and stays open ’til three or four in the morning.” 

Another of his favorite cheesesteak dives is Joe’s, in a neighborhood close to where he grew up in North Philly, “on a street you really wouldn’t want to walk down alone at night. One counter is for your cheesesteak, the other is for your soda and fries, and that’s it. You order it, you move on. If you take too much time with questions and specifications, they kick you out of line — they don’t have time for that!”

That blue-collar toughness has always been part of Philadelphia; this is the city that gave us Sylvester Stallone and Rocky. Boxing has always been big in Philadelphia — the town produced Joe Frazier and Sonny Liston — and it’s a sport that’s big in Costello’s family. They even own a Northeast Philly boxing gym. “It’s called the Jack Costello Boxing Club,” he says, “and it’s in an old sewing factory across the street from where my grandfather lived. We don’t charge any more than five dollars a month. If anyone can’t pay for it, someone puts it in for them. It’s in honor of my grandfather, who always wanted to own his own boxing gym and died the very day he bought into one. There are trainers there all day long. It costs $25,000 a year to keep open, so we are always trying to chase down donors. Every year they have a fund-raiser. It helps get kids off the streets and into some sort of a program to learn discipline. I’ve always had this crazy idea to do a recital in the gym, in the ring, with a piano, as a fundraiser. Maybe I’ll do it this summer!” 

As for Costello’s own boxing skills, he says, “They suck! My family wouldn’t let me box, because they were always afraid I’d hurt myself. At the time, I was a trumpet-player, and they were concerned I’d get hit in the mouth!” 

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Rittenhouse Square
© Mira/Alamy 2015
 

Now, when he wants to relax, Costello enjoys “just sitting on the grass in Rittenhouse Square on a nice day. It’s a real urban oasis in the middle of Center City.” (That’s also the site of a hotel he recommends, the Rittenhouse, and its restaurant, Lacroix, where he and his family have had many celebratory dinners.) “And I love driving along the Schuylkill down Boathouse Row, windows open, the wind coming through the car.” 

Like some opera singers of days gone by, he’s known to sneak an occasional cigar, and he has a secret spot for that. “There’s a great cigar shop called Holt’s. It’s got a lounge in the back where you can smoke the cigar you just bought. Not a great thing to do very often when you’re a singer, but I’ll go there when I’m home. It’s great to have a cigar there, then go across the street to Alma de Cuba for mojitos and snacks.” spacer 

ERIC MYERS is the author of three books. He has contributed articles to Playbill, Time Out New York and The New York Times Magazine and Arts and Leisure sections. 

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