Love, war and the Philly cheesesteak

Follow the iconic sandwich’s trail through immigrant neighbourhoods and historic alleyways to uncover Philadelphia’s rich past and proud culture.

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.

In South Philadelphia, born and raised
Almost any conversation about cheesesteak in Philadelphia begins with Pat’s versus Geno’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 ubiquitous cheesesteak.

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.

Lean over, dig in
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.

Go local
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.

A family tradition
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 the James Beard Foundation, receiving their Award for Culinary Excellence in 2006.

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. 

With foie
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.