On their semiannual pilgrimage from New Jersey late last week, South Philly expats found themselves passing by the Vietnamese shopping plaza on Washington Avenue, a faded crab house, and the forlorn Christmas tree lot, sure signs they were nearing the semi-Italian market.

They'd come back for merguez, the lamb sausage (and seven-fishes sausage) that Sonny D'Angelo grinds to order behind the massive butcher block at his Ninth Street shop, idling under sprays of feathers and ("Do Not Touch!") pelts, and the bleached animal skulls that add an unmistakably atavistic touch.

Whether they'd venture further, into the taquerias that have sprouted in shops abandoned on the market's southern flank was less certain. And they were certainly not bent on discovering a true delicacy - the cilantro-topped Vietnamese hoagies around the corner.

When you drop in a couple of times a year, it's not for new experiences. It's to relive the old ones; to gaze once again upon the pyramids of pannetone.

The show here is still suitably primal, and rawer; the fire barrels sifting up flurries of ash, snowflakes returning home.

The blue crabs flail in bushel baskets. The rabbits hang in white fur coats. The pigs in pink. Cleavers chop. Carts rattle. From his mural, Frank Rizzo presides, as silent as night, dark and impassive.

The tubs of ricotta are in the windows, awaiting the rush of the Christmas pie-makers. At Claudio's, the provolone hang like big bananas. At Anthony's Chocolates, the hazelnut torrone has that yielding, airy nougat found only in fresh, homemade torrones.

It was a full $3 to park in the lot on Washington Avenue beside Anastasi's Seafood, so locals and returnees alike dueled fiercely for spaces on the street, double-parking, illegally parking, in-front-of-driveway parking, in-middle-of-street parking.

Those who bit the bullet and pulled into the lot were happy to learn that the $3 fee included $1 off any purchase at Anastasi's, and owner Sal Anastasi was instructing the attendant to direct parkers to cross the street only at the corner with Ninth Street, the better to funnel them past his outdoor fish cases.

Inside them were trays of snakey eels and tiny, silvery smelts, parched slabs of salt-cod baccala, and sardines, traditional guests at the Feast of Seven Fishes extant in many, if each year fewer, Italian homes.

Indeed, customers in Anastasi's sit-down dining room were having their memories jogged; they each got a small appetizer plate of lightly fried smelts and "little fish," minnowlike morsels, with a wonderful, mild, salty crispness livened with a squirt of lime.

In the back, Anastasi's has a file book with times and orders: This one wants to come in at 6 p.m. Christmas Eve, that one 2 p.m.; which fish is ordered uncooked, or cooked or prepped.

Just like in the old days. Though even what is left of them is hanging by a thread at the corner of Washington and Ninth.

Anastasi's building was recently bought, so its own days may be numbered. Just to the south, the massive brick ice house that dates to the 1920s - once home to 17 businesses - is set to be demolished next month.

Condos are contemplated, and housing for seniors and, at street level, retail shops of one stripe or another.

One suspects that the adjacent parking for the expats returning next year may surely exceed the $3 ceiling.

Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.