In Philadelphia, the cheesesteak reigns supreme. But there is more to the city's lively culinary scene than choosing between “Whiz wit” (a steak sandwich with Cheese Whiz and fried onions) and “provi widdout” (provolone, no onions).
There are taco stands, of course, and Chinese food
trucks, soul food takeaway counters and falafel carts. But what makes the local
food unique is the unlikely collision of two seemingly disparate groups – the
rowdy butchers and sausage-makers of the Italian immigrant sector, and the
pious Amish who carry traditional pastries from their farmhouse kitchens to the
city markets. For an authentic taste of Philly, sample their signature dishes
at these time-tested food stands around town.
This hot-weather treat – a sugary, ice-cold hybrid of smoothie, sorbet and
Italian ice – is a Philadelphia invention with Italian roots. Traditionally,
water ice is prepared with classic fruit flavours like cherry or lemon, then
ladled into paper cups. One of the city's oldest purveyors of the smooth,
sticky-sweet dessert is John's Water
Ice, dishing out four simple varieties since 1945. To really get into a
summery spirit, take a water ice tour of South Philly, starting at John's, then
moving onto another local favourite, Italiano's Water Ice (2551 South 12th
Street). Fans say the fresh fruit juice and hard ice cream (versus the
soft-serve used at many water ice stands) makes Italiano's version a few licks
above the rest.
The rolling hills of Lancaster County, not far outside the city of
Philadelphia, are home to a thriving Amish population. They work the land with
horse-drawn tractors, tend to their vegetable gardens, milk cows, churn their
own butter and labour in farmhouse kitchens to produce the time-honoured dishes
of Pennsylvania’s Dutch Country. Rather amazingly – considering that the Amish
value privacy and choose to live apart from the modern world around them –
some families bring their traditional delicacies to vendors' booths at the Reading
Terminal Market. Farm-fresh homemade breads, apple fritters, sticky buns
and chocolate fudge are available at several of the Amish-run stands; a
must-sample is the famous, molasses-rich shoo-fly pie at Beiler's Bakery.
In a city where cheesesteak dominates the sandwich scene, the Italian hoagie
also inspires a fair amount of fanatical devotion to neighbourhood delis,
complete with heated debates about who makes it best. Traditionally, the
submarine-style sandwich features a fresh Italian roll drizzled with oil,
stuffed with sliced tomatoes, onions, shredded lettuce, provolone cheese and
Italian-style ham and salami, all sprinkled with oregano and basil. Locals
swear by the hoagies at Chickie's Italian Deli (1014
Federal Street), PrimoHoagies (both
in South Philly, though the latter now has franchises all over town) and Sarcone's Deli at the Italian Market.
This rich Italian-style ice cream – a European import, of course – gets an
extra kick in Philadelphia thanks to the fresh milk and cream sourced from
nearby Amish farms. The long-time frontrunner is artisan gelato-maker Capogiro, with a popular outpost on
Rittenhouse Square and several other locations across the city. Exotic flavours
like nocciola Piemonte (hazelnut) and
melograno (pomegranate) evoke the
Mediterranean, but the fresh, hormone-free milk is a proud product of
Pennsylvania Dutch Country.
Baked twists of buttery dough, topped with mustard and served on wax paper is another
product of the improbable marriage between Italian and Amish. It is thought
that seventh-century Italian monks invented the snack to reward children after
prayer studies, with the recipe then spreading to Austria and Germany.
Centuries later, these “bretzels” were brought stateside by the immigrants now
known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. The first American pretzel was crafted in
Amish country in 1861; shortly after, Julius Sturgis founded the nation's first
pretzel bakery in nearby Lititz, Pennsylvania.
Today, locals pledge their allegiance to the
piping-hot pretzels from the Philly
Soft Pretzel Factory , which has locations across the city. Maybe the
pretzel is Amish-inspired, maybe it is an Italian thing – no one really cares
when they are delving into a butter-stained brown paper bag stuffed with an
oven-fresh bakers' dozen.
The article 'A collision of cultures and cuisine in Philadelphia' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.