To get to the heart of Philadelphia, you have to go
through its stomach. Enter the Philadelphia cheesesteak: a venerable Philly
tradition of thinly sliced rib-eye beef served on soft Italian-style bread and topped
with melted cheese. To follow its trail through the city’s immigrant
neighbourhoods and historic alleyways is to uncover and celebrate Philadelphia’s
rich past and proud culture.
Philadelphia, born and raised
Almost any conversation about cheesesteak in
Philadelphia begins with Pat’s
two long-time South Philly cheesesteak rivals. Loyalty to one or the other
mirrors the competitive devotion typically reserved for sports teams. Both turn
out traditional cheesesteaks to seemingly endless lines of hungry tourists and
Philadelphia locals, with only an intersection and hordes of cheesesteak-eating
loyalists between them.
Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks are located on directly
opposite street corners, less than one mile from Philadelphia’s infamous
Italian Market. Officially named the South
9th Street Curb Market, it is the
oldest outdoor market in the United States, dating from 1884. As Italians began
to emigrate to the US at the end of the 19th Century, many settled
in South Philadelphia where the market took shape to cater to the new
community. Today, its streets are still lined with multi-ethnic vendors hawking
fresh produce beside Italian cheesemongers and butchers.
Fittingly, it was near the 9th Street
market that two Italian brothers co-created the cheesesteak, albeit
accidentally. As the story goes, Harry and Pat Olivieri were selling hotdogs
from a roadside stand in the early 1930s when culinary inspiration struck.
Bored with their daily offerings, Pat asked Harry to buy some beef that they
then grilled with onions and piled on a roll. As they were about to dig in, a
taxi driver serendipitously arrived, was seduced by the aroma and bought the
sandwich for five cents. Philadelphia legend has it that the driver said: “Hey…
forget ‘bout those hot dogs, you should sell these.”
Rumour of the meat sandwich spread far and wide,
Philadelphians say. And the next day, cabbies from around the city made a beeline
to the Olivieri brothers demanding their very own. From that moment on, demand
continued to soar by leaps and bounds for the newcomer in this Italian neighbourhood.
Cut to 1940 and Harry and Pat finally gave in to unstoppable growth, opening a
brick-and-mortar shop on 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue: Pat’s King
of Steaks. The same shop – with the same name and the same Olivieri family at
the helm – still stands proudly today, a testament to the cheesesteaks’ legacy
in South Philly.
But a cheesesteak is not a cheesesteak without the
cheese. In 1949, a one-time employee at Pat’s, Joe Lorenzo, is said to have set
the first slice of American cheese on the grilling meat in a quest to try
something new. In that gastronomic flash, the steak sandwich became the
When in Philadelphia, only three cheeses are
acceptable to order in a cheesesteak: American, Italian Provolone or Cheez
Whiz – a radiantly yellow, processed cheese sauce. The soft
consistency of Cheez Whiz means melting it is a breeze, perfect for busy cooks
pushing out non-stop orders. And though it is the most popular choice, it is an
acquired taste that many either love or hate, akin to Marmite or Spam.
Benches and tables covered by a simple metal awning
dot the sidewalks around Pat’s. Peek through the large windows of the fish
bowl-like kitchen to get a glimpse of hustling cooks slicing, grilling and
assembling countless cheesesteaks at lightening pace. Wait outside on the
inevitably long line, practice your order – the menu will guide you – arrive to
the open counter, and quicker than you can say “without onions,” a hot cheesesteak
will be handed over, wrapped tightly in white wax paper. Unravel the sandwich
and before you take that first bite, lean over the paper – lest the bottom end
falls out – and dig in.
Though one cheesesteak is more than enough to satiate
even the most impressive appetite, you can peer across the street to Geno’s
grand neon signage, hop across the road and get ready to do it again. The
experience here is repeated nearly exactly, and the space is almost identical
to Pat’s. Opened in 1966 by an Italian-American family, Geno’s has been pushing
out competitor cheesesteaks from day one The sandwiches here boast a nice
balance of grilled meat, slightly caramelised onion and a layer of cheese on
pleasantly spongy Italian bread.
Today, because of the tourists, many Philadelphians
avoid the infamous Pat’s and Geno’s intersection, heading instead to favourite
local counters and delis, small eateries like Dalessandro’s Steaks and Hoagies
in the Roxborough neighbourhood, Steve’s Prince of Steaks in
northeast Philadelphia and Cosmi’s
Deli in South Philly. All have their own twists on the cheesesteak –
sliced meat or minced, sesame bun or not, fried hot peppers, pickles or just
grilled onions, or perhaps none of the above. Debating tirelessly over why one
is infinitely better than another borders on a spectator sport in this city.
To fully sample the local scene, sign up for a cheesesteak
tour, where food obsessives lead a quest through Philadelphia’s city
streets. Expect to spend at least two hours, stopping – and eating – at a
handful of spots, from the iconic to the local.
If dedicating this much time is not on your agenda, Philly Steakout
is a great source for uncovering local spots. Using data from review sites such
as Foursquare and Yelp, the creative minds at Neiman Labs
ranked the top 25 cheesesteak eateries in Philadelphia by volume of check ins,
identifying tourists versus locals and tying in corresponding online ratings.
The result is a solid hit list of some of Philly’s
best spots, with John’s
Roast Pork in South Philadelphia among those topping the list.
The neighbourhood surrounding John’s Roast Pork is
industrial and quiet, bordered by looming warehouses and smoking factories. You
may think you have taken a wrong turn down a back alley until you spot the
small restaurant standing humbly on a corner.
Duck into the intimate deli-like space, where a
handful of cooks stand at a grill, cooking up sizzling beef loin to order. The
wait is definitely longer than at Pat’s or Geno’s, but it is well worth it. A
hot, just-cooked sandwich of razor-thin quality steak is blanketed with
melting, extra sharp Provolone and lovingly pocketed into sesame-seed topped
Italian bread. The crust resists momentarily only to give in to a pillowy
interior, happily hugging meat, onion and cheese. The beef is flavourful,
tender and plentiful. Top it with their fried hot peppers and enjoy one of the
best cheesesteaks in Philadelphia – and possibly anywhere.
The owner, John Bucci Jr, speaks deeply and
emotionally about his ancestry. His grandfather – an Italian immigrant from the
region of Abruzzi – originally set up shop at this same location in 1930 selling
meatballs and roasted pork made from family recipes. Dock and blue-collar
workers frequented the roadside food truck, with he huge demand eventually leading
to a proper restaurant on the same spot. Three generations on and the family
business continues to soar, gaining accolades ranging from local newspapers to
Beard Foundation, receiving their Award for Culinary Excellence in
A true family business, Bucci Jr has been has been
making cheesesteaks at John’s Roast Pork his whole life. His mother, now in her
80s, still sits at the helm, while his wife mans the register. It is their superior
meat and cooked-to-order policy that Bucci credits as their recipe for success.
Flipping the much-beloved cheesesteak directly on its
head is Barclay
Prime, a self-described “luxury steakhouse” in the historic
Barclay Building in the Rittenhouse Square neighbourhood. Alongside caviar and
oysters sits the city’s most expensive and extravagant cheesesteak. Sliced
wagyu ribeye beef – prized for its intense marbling – is topped with seared
foie gras and truffle-flaked cheese whiz, which is then tucked into a sesame
roll. Half a bottle of Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut Champagne accompanies the $100 meal.