Philadelphia is famous for many things. It is a center of arts and culture (not the plasticized, marketing idea of arts and culture emanating from Manhattan). Its cultural diversity is masked by its segregation, as it is a city of neighborhoods, there are no gates but a native knows which block belongs to whom. A Laotian friend was able to break it down even farther, pointing out which block was Vietnamese, Cambodian, Thai, and his Laotian neighborhood. One elementary school I worked in had parents who spoke eleven different languages.
All these ethnic groups provide Philadelphia with its greatest claim to fame. Touching far more lives than the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, The Free Library, the First Zoological Gardens, its numerous art museums or even Rocky, Philadelphia has an incredibly diverse selection of cuisines, and there are many popular dishes that originated in Philadelphia. Philadelphia is a food city.
Philadelphia has some wonderful restaurants, and I’ve eaten at many of them. Lieve and I have been to Panorama a few times, Le Bec Fin will be closing next month, and Deux Cheminees closed in 2007, but still going strong since 1930 is Pat’s King of Steaks, and their friendly rival, Geno’s (which has only been around since 1966).
These are the official publicity photos of Pat’s and Geno’s. In real life, Pat’s is a little dingier, Geno’s is a little glitzier. You could see the light of Geno’s neon from my apartment, nine blocks away.
Back when I would eat meat, I preferred Pat’s. It’s just more authentic, more South Philly. Joey Vento, the owner of Geno’s, made world news when he posted a sign in the window saying “This is America, order in English” (Pat’s had always had a sign instructing how to properly order a cheesesteak, written in “South Philleese”). He was a great guy, and could usually be found at the restaurant. Regardless of your ethnic background, if you lived in Philly you were either a “Pat’s” or a “Geno’s” person.
Being a largely Italian neighborhood (the Italian newspaper only recently started publishing in English), another great source of controversy was the choice of bakeries. Varallo Brothers had the best cannoli (At Christmas time, a guy in a Santa Suit directed traffic on the corner), Frangelli’s had the best doughnuts, but Termini Brothers has the best cheesecake. Yes, Termini’s makes that fluffy New York style cheesecake, but their pan cheesecake sets them apart. This is an Italian style, with “baking cheese” that is simply amazing. If you visit Philadelphia, Termini Brothers have locations at Reading Terminal, the Comcast Building, and Packer Park, but as long as you’re in South Philly picking up a cheesesteak, you might as well stop in the original bakery on Eighth street for a cheesecake. On a good day, you might get some live music to go along with it.
When I was first dating my wife, I would always have a Termini Brothers cheesecake and a bottle of sparkling wine in the refrigerator for breakfast when she spent the night. Now that we’re an hour away from Philly, I don’t make the trip over to Eighth street as often. I’m told it’s a healthy decision, I was starting to put on weight.
A fair amount of humor was generated in the confusion of cheesecake and cheesesteak, being a devout vegetarian a few eyebrows raised when Lieve would tell her friends I had gone to Philly for cheesesteaks.
Other foods originating in Philadelphia, according to Wikipedia, include:
- German butter cake—A very rich type of pound cake with a buttery, pudding-like center. Not to be confused with the traditional butter cake or the St. Louis version.
- Tomato Pie—Essentially a cheeseless pizza two feet by three feet in size, with extra oregano. Tomato pie is normally served cold or at room temperature. It is more often found in the Northeast section of Philadelphia and at bakeries in South Philadelphia. Joe Villari at Tenth and Winton was the best in the neighborhood, but I think he left the business.
- Cheese sauce —A gooey, orange, dairy condiment carried by many street vendors. In general, Philadelphians often add cheese sauce to inexpensive food items, such as French fries and pretzels. The vast majority of “cheese sauce” served on Philadelphia foods is the nationally recognized brand, Cheez Whiz (“Wiz” in Soft Philly).
- Pork roll, although developed and mostly produced in Trenton, is considered part of the Philadelphia culinary tradition.
- Scrapple, a processed meat loaf made of pork scraps and trimmings combined with cornmeal and flour, is perhaps the most iconic of Pennsylvanian breakfast foods. It’s thou roughly gross, but as long as you don’t think about what’s in it it’s great.
- Peanut Chews, a popular candy produced in Philadelphia since 1917.
- Spiced wafers, a type of cookie traditionally sold in the autumn.
- Stromboli is reported to have originated in 1950 in Essington just outside of Philadelphia. It is a type of turnover made with Italian bread dough filled with various kinds of cheese, Italian charcuterie or vegetables. Panzarotti is a trademark for a type of deep-fried stromboli.
- Tastykake is the most well-known snack brand native to Philadelphia. Since 1914, the Tasty Baking Company has provided the region with its line of pre-packaged baked goods; best-known varieties include Krimpets, cupcakes, Kandy Kakes (wafer-sized chocolate and peanut butter cakes), and Tasty Pies. Emma’s first craving after surgery was for a cherry Tasty Pie.
- Herr’s is also a Philadelphia-area snack brand, maker of such things as potato chips.
- Soda pop. In the early nineteenth century Dr. Philip Syng Physick and John Hart of Philadelphia invented carbonated water in an attempt to simulate water from natural springs. In 1807, Philadelphian pharmacist Townsend Speakman sold fruit juice and carbonated water, inventing the first soft drink. In 1875, Charles Elmer Hires invented root beer by mixing sarsaparilla, sassafras, wild cherry, wintergreen, ginger, and alcohol. He sold it at his drug store in Philadelphia.
- While not listed on Wikipedia, Cream Cheese is so closely associated with Philadelphia that in some countries the words are interchangeable, as in this deli in Leuven selling “Stuffed chicken filet with cream cheese”.
Most of these cause natives to make routine pilgrimages, Tastycake and Termini’s will ship their products, and a couple of independent companies will ship cheesesteaks. “A Taste of Philadelphia” will ship care packages anywhere in the world to Philadelphians who find it hard to exist without real food.