Natalia Soltamova may have emigrated from Russia over 20 years ago, but she still shops at Bell’s Market — a European grocery store on Bustleton Avenue in the Northeast corner of Philly. “I like the fresh-baked bread, the cakes, the different salads you can’t find other places, and the caviar,” she says. Soltamova says the staff are “friendly and helpful.”
Not many supermarket circulars feature bags of buckwheat, Ukrainian butter, chocolate-covered wafer cookies, spiral marshmallows made in Lithuania, glass jars of bright red pickled tomatoes, cauliflower, and various peppers, plus enough vegetables to get you through the Russian winter, but Bell’s Market does. Bell’s Market opened a decade after the influx of Soviet Jewish immigrants settled in Northeast Philadelphia. In its goods imported from the East, it offered new Americans a taste of home.
Bell’s stocks many of the usual supermarket staples — canned goods, dry pasta, and produce — but if you don’t look carefully when choosing a bottle of grape juice, you might pick up pomegranate cherry Kirsch by mistake. The fresh produce department offers the usual veggies, but also antonovka apples and galia melons from Asia.
The market has products from around the world, with a heavy emphasis on Russia, Turkey, Ukraine, Israel, and Kazakhstan. Alongside chicken legs, the store offers baked paltus, or Russian halibut, and kievski cake made with the finest layers of sponge. The deli counter looks predictable until you get close and see Albanian cow cheese and Rizinski sheep cheese.
There are some 26,000 Russians in the Philadelphia area. But if you ask shoppers at Bell’s Market where they’re from, they’re equally likely to say they are from Belarus, Estonia, Moldova or Ukraine, the countries that became independent with the fall of the Soviet Union.
In the past 20 years, as immigrants became settled in Philadelphia, many moved to Bucks County. Most of their children, the next generation of new Americans, chose to live in neighborhoods other than Northeast Philadelphia. But the original Bustleton location continues to feed every successive wave of immigrants. “We have Russians still but also lots of nationalities in this neighborhood,” says Natasha Osadchaya, Bell’s manager since it opened. “People from Albania, India, Kazakhstan, China, and now Afghanistan: We have food for all of them.”
Osadchaya says that sometimes a customer will come in, describing a favorite food or holding a long-empty package. “Cookies that they can’t find anywhere else. Canned fish they used up. They ask us to get it and we’ll order it,” she says. There is a nostalgia for foods from their homeland and food is a way for immigrants to stay connected to their culture and heritage.
Take the dairy case, for example: it contains eight different kinds of feta, farmers cheese, goat cheese, sheep cheese, and an extensive butter selection. Sitting next to the all-natural butter from Maine is a cube of Vologodskoe butter, a creamy butter with a nutty flavor from the cow pastures of Vologda, Russia.
Given the Russian tradition of sweetening tea with a spoonful of fruit jam, the extensive selection of jams is also not surprising. Many of the labels are in Cyrillic letters and the pictures on the labels show plum, grapefruit, white cherry, chokeberry, sour cherry, and lemon. Just remember to say “spasiba” — or thank you — when you ask what the flavor is.
At the prepared foods counter, Ade Wole was ordering a “nice piece of big fish.” Wole shops at Bell’s because it is his neighborhood grocery store. “But it’s a good store,” he says, “Lots of good food.” Wole enjoys the breaded cooked fish filets. “I just put in the microwave, easy,” he says.
Don’t skip the prepared takeout food counter, with its cold salads (mushroom, pickled beets, cabbage, pasta, and veggies) and hot foods (chicken kiev, blintzes, several kinds of latkes, cabbage rolls, Turkish rice, and more.) Try the layered puff pastries labeled khachapuri filled with ground beef and mushrooms or spinach and feta.
Right next to the meat is a refrigerated case with eight shelves of herring and lox. Before the coronavirus, the herring was displayed in an open salad bar. Now, it’s sealed in plastic packs, but the choices are still plentiful. There’s the Jewish deli staple Acme brand imported from Brooklyn, Haifa smoked fish from Queens, NY, and Kaija brand from Latvia. Along with varieties of herring — in cream sauce, without salt, in olive oil — there is ivasi white fish and forelka trout and several kinds of smoked salmon.
In the last aisle, the in-house bakery turns out lavash bread, authentic rye breads, several types of multigrain wheat loaves, and more. You can’t avoid being tempted by the 44 different types of cakes displayed in glass cases, with chocolate ganache, glace cherries, whipped cream, and drizzled caramel. Your phone can translate “riznik” cake as royal cake, but it can’t tell you how delicious this traditional Russian four-layer cake — made with sour cream, cocoa, poppy seeds, and toasted walnuts — will taste.
Just past the shelves that feature nine different types of halvah from five different countries, the last kiosk to hit before you leave features individually-wrapped hard candies. Flavors range from familiar coffee or strawberry to eucalyptus and Pomawka chocolates. At $3.99 for a pound, it’s tempting to gamble and try a mix of mystery flavored candies.
At Bell’s Market, customers searching for a taste of the old country make an effort to come back and shop, even if it means driving from their homes in New Jersey or Bucks County. “Customers tell us they travel hours to shop here,” Osadchaya says. “We have a nice variety of the cooked foods they remember and like to eat.”