You just ate a faux-colonial pot pie at City Tavern. You're trying to decide between Pat's and Geno's for your first cheesesteak. And where is that Bookbinder's place?
Lemme guess . . . you're not from here. Can I please save you the disappointment of wasting precious meals on tourist traps and faded legends? I've got straight-up advice on the still-genuine spots that make Philadelphia a one-of-a-kind food destination.
True, I've spent almost two decades here mostly touting the cosmopolitan dining scene that we've become with star chefs, BYOBs, gastropubs, and hot restaurant neighborhoods like Fishtown and East Passyunk. But when it comes to Philly's most iconic foods, the pride in our old traditions still runs deep. Our passion for cheesesteaks, pork sandwiches, and water ice is fueled by fierce neighborhood loyalties and spoken with a local dialect that always seems most pronounced when it's time to eat. This is especially true in the word-chomping swagger of Italian South Philly, where "with onions" becomes "wit," tomato sauce is "red gravy," and a guy named Ant'ny probably just put "gabagool" on your hoagie.
"We always leave a letter out," explains hoagie master Frank Sangiuliano at Pastificio Deli. "But that's what makes us distinct."
So, in the immortal word smush of my favorite T-shirt at Paesano's: "Jaeatyet?"
I hope not. This definitive guide to Philly's signature flavors will require an appetite.
Few foods divide friends like the cheesesteak debate, but no Philadelphians I know begin their favorites list with any of the most famous names - Pat's, Geno's, or Jim's. The best are inevitably found deep in the neighborhoods at shops run by people passionate about quality meats (house-sliced rib eye preferred), who cook sandwiches to order (avoid griddles piled with precooked meat) with well-caramelized onions and good, crusty rolls that can hold the juicy drip. Cheese preferences vary, but I'm a provolone-loving evangelist for the #NeverWhiz movement. Only inferior beef needs the salty flow of liquid cheez.
John's Roast Pork (14 E. Snyder Ave.) in deep South Philly remains my ideal stop for a hefty Italian-style steak with spinach and sharp provolone, or the "bruschetta" topped with chopped tomatoes and basil. (The fresh chicken steak there streaked with red gravy is an excellent "healthy" alternative). But I have many other favorites: the new Fishtown location of Joe's Steaks (1 W. Girard Ave.) for a classic soft-roll steak with American cheese; the 24-hour stand Philip's Steaks (2234 W. Passyunk Ave. in South Philly) for my current composed steak obsession, the "Old Fashion" with grilled tomatoes, long hots, onions, oregano, and provolone. For a 21st-century-quality upgrade, visit SpOt Gourmet Burgers (2821 W. Girard Ave.) in Brewerytown, where owner Josh Kim butchers his own meat, works the griddle like a master, and the steak has a good, long savor. Among the big names, Tony Luke's (39 E. Oregon Ave., South Philly) and its salt-flecked rolls are still legit, though worldwide expansion has scuffed some of its luster. But should you find yourself hungry in the 2 a.m. neon glow of the titans at Ninth and Passyunk, a recent revisit made my choice clear: Geno's (1219 S. Ninth St.), with extra shakes of salt and some spicy cherry peppers for spark, was the far juicier way to go.
Before there were cheesesteaks (invented in 1930), roast pork was the standby sandwich for wedding banquets in Italian South Philly. Again, John's is the standard-bearer, a juicy pan of its thin-sliced meat infused with garlic and rosemary simmering at the back of the stove. But DiNic's in the Reading Terminal Market is a worthy equal, especially when snuggled with long hots, greens, and sharp provolone. Meanwhile, the "Arista" at Paesano's remaining location in Northern Liberties (148 W. Girard Ave.) is an irresistible version closer to the Italian suckling-pig original, with big chunks of tender meat alongside zesty peppers and sharp cheese. Don't want pork? Try the equally amazing, juice-drenched roast beef "combo overboard on the outs" at Old Original Nick's Roast Beef (2149 S. 20th St. in South Philly).
At the moment, Philly is just as obsessed with the Vietnamese banh mi trend as the rest of the country. But we'll always be a blue-collar hoagie city first. There are many theories about how our version of the sub got its name, including a popular belief that it descends from the Italian immigrants who worked at the Hog Island shipyard in the Navy Yard at the beginning of the 20th century, whose sandwiches eventually became known as “hoggies.” An even older tale suggests that its origin dates to the Italian "hokey pokey" vendors who sold antipasto salads with "pinafore" rolls in the late 19th century. Local convenience chains like Wawa sell thousands each day, but with hoagies, quality and craftsmanship make a huge difference. Wawa's rolls are flimsy and the meats are bland. Look for delis where meats are sliced to order (often directly onto the sandwich) and the fresh-baked rolls have a seeded crust. My current champ is Pastificio Deli (1528 Packer Ave., a mile north of the Wells Fargo Center), where imported meats are carefully layered with sharp provolone and just the right amount of shredded veggies for a zesty signature sandwich with balance and bite. I'm also a fan of the standard Italians at Dan's Fresh Meats (2000 Frankford Ave.) in Fishtown, Shank's Original Pier 40 (901 S. Christopher Columbus Blvd.) in South Philly, which has the added bonus of picnic-table seating beside the Delaware River, and Cosmi's Deli (1501 S. Eighth St.), which, along with Shank's, also makes a solid steak. Nonmeat lovers, meanwhile, will find roasted-eggplant goodness in the veggie hoagie at Antonio's Deli (1014 Federal St.), the successor to Chickie's.
The great hoagies of the Great Northeast should not be forgotten, either. Try the subtly layered Italian at DeNofa’s (6944-46 Torresdale Ave. ), the “Main Event” with marinated artichokes and peppers at Dattilo’s (8000 Horrocks St.), the Italian with olive spread and crumbled sparks of sharp provolone at the original Fink’s Hoagies (4633 Princeton Ave), and the distinctive “Polish hoagie” lined with house-made Krawkowska lunch meat at Robert Lachowicz Quality Foods (2582 Orthodox St.) in Bridesburg.
Red Gravy Italian
Between the many Vetri restaurants, Le Virtù/Brigantessa, our many BYOBs (Zeppoli and Melograno), and the new Wm. Mulherin's Sons, we have some of the best modern and authentic Italian cooking in America. But the proud Italian American tradition, steeped in the "red gravy" pots of South Philly since the 1800s, remains part of our DNA. Two of the country's oldest Italian restaurants - Ralph's and Dante & Luigi's - exude genuine Old World charm. But for food, my two favorites are elsewhere. Head to the Italian Market for the DeLuca family's Villa di Roma (936 S. Ninth St.), where the dining room feels like a 1960s time capsule and the old favorites - meatballs, fried asparagus in scampi butter, ziti Francis, veal Parmesan stuffed with an extra layer of eggplant - are still handmade by family with care. For a midday adventure, head over to charming Mr. Joe's Cafe (1514 S. Eighth St.), the luncheonette where on Fridays in the fall you may catch Temple University football coaches eating lucky bowls of scrippelle soup and gnocchi with braciola for their weekly pregame ritual meal.
Soft pretzels, which are essentially oversize fresh versions of the hard variety, descend from Pennsylvania's rich German heritage. But don't judge us by the overly sweet, butter-slathered softies at all those Auntie Anne's stands around the airport. For that super-cushy, warm-baked style, I far prefer Miller's Twist at the Reading Terminal Market. For the sturdier, salt-nubbed rectangular 8's common at local food carts, the Center City Pretzel Co. (816 Washington Ave.) makes the kind of preservative-free twists that can bring chewy satisfaction to any Philly office party. But the best pretzel? That would be the more authentic Bavarian-style twists at the Little Bird Bakery (517 S. Fifth St.), where pastry chef-owner Jessica Nolen now takes advance orders only while she also bakes them for Brauhaus Schmitz (718 South St.).
Few institutions manage to be indispensable for tourists and locals alike, but the Reading Terminal at 12th and Arch Streets is just that. This historic market, a former railroad terminal that dates to the 19th century, remains, despite the challenges of increasing modern competition, the best single place in the city to shop for a big meal. Butcher shops like Giunta's Prime Shop, La Divisa, Martin's, L. Halteman's, and Godshall's Poultry are regular stops for me. I get exotic mushrooms at Iovine's, organic local produce (and my Thanksgiving turkey!) at the Fair Food Stand, specialty cheeses at Valley Shepherd and Downtown Cheese. But, of course, the RTM is also a lunch mecca. Here's a short list of my favorite bites: the fresh-pulled mozzarella sandwich and Valley Thunder grilled cheese at Meltkraft; the grilled salmon at Little Thai market; the turkey Rachel (and pastrami) at Hershel's East Side Deli; the roast pork at DiNic's; the sloppy joe and ham-and-bean soup at the Dutch Eating Place; fried chicken at Keven Parker's Soul Food Cafe; the gyro at Olympic Gyro; the liverwurst sandwich from Wursthaus Schmitz, and, of course, a scoop of Bassetts Ice Cream, or what may be the world's best doughnuts and apple fritters fresh from the fryer at Beiler's Donuts.
For such an old city, Philadelphia has lost far too many historic institutions. Old Original Bookbinder's has become the Olde Bar (125 Walnut St.), which is mostly good for cocktails. City Tavern (138 S. Second St.) can be missed. But traces of the colonial port city are still apparent in some classic soups, like the spicy, tripe-filled pepper pot that's an occasional special at Whetstone Tavern (700 S. Fifth St.) (A tripe-free pepper pot is actually the best thing City Tavern makes.) Then there is the rich, brown snapper soup fortified with sherry at the classic Oyster House (1516 Sansom St.), the last survivor of our once-grand fish-house tradition. The raw oysters are perfect. And if you want to lunch there like a local, the strange-but-great combo of fried oysters with chicken salad is something you'll eat only in Philly.
For some reason, scrapple has a bad reputation. What could be wrong with spare pig parts cooked down with corn mush into a pâté-like loaf of breakfast meat? Try it! Most are grateful they did. Of the big supermarket brands found at typical diners, Habbersett (from Delaware) is my default. But more artisan versions are worth seeking. The best scrapple I’ve ever eaten was at Hungry Pigeon (743 S. 4th St.) in Queen Village, where John L. King’s master scrapple from Lancaster was both vividly porky and fluffy with corn, perfectly pan-crisped and served with a house-made bottle of spicy green “Scott sauce.” For other excellent renditions, check-out Fishtown’s whole-animal restaurant and butcher Kensington Quarters (1310 Frankford Ave.), or the heritage breed scrapple from Stryker Farms, available at Fair Food Farmstand in the Reading Terminal Market. There are plenty of alt-scrapples being made in local restaurants, too, like the duck scrapple cleverly sandwiched between bao buns at Double Knot (120 S. 13th St.) and the mushroom-centric veggie scrapple on the vegan-friendly breakfast menu of Front Street Cafe (1253 N. Front St.).
Nothing cools Philadelphia's summer swelter like a cup of "wooder ice," yet another gift from the local Italian tradition. The Trevose mega-chain Rita's dominates the market, but I find its ices too intensely sweet and artificial. For a more genuine taste, try the old-school lemon ice (filled with bits of rind) at Lucio Mancuso & Son (1902 E. Passyunk Ave.), the natural flavors at John's Water Ice (701 Christian St.), where I loved a recent cantaloupe special, or Pop's Homemade Italian Ice (1337 W. Oregon Ave.), where the Italiano family has been serving natural juice-flavored ices since the original "Pop," Filippo Italiano, set up a pushcart in Marconi Plaza during the Great Depression. Try the mango, peach, black cherry, or patriotic "gelati" (blueberry and cherry ices with vanilla custard) that the current "Pop," Philip Italiano, created in honor of the Democratic National Convention.
America's ice cream industry has its roots in Philadelphia, where colonial confectioners molded ice creams into myriad elegant shapes, and both Breyers and Bassetts got their starts. Today, we have some of the best modern ice cream artisans around, from Capogiro Gelato (several locations) to funky Little Baby's (2311 Frankford Ave.) and the creative ice cream sandwich wonders of Weckerly's (available at numerous cafes). But few channel the city's ice cream history quite like the Franklin Fountain (116 Market St.), a Victorian-theme parlor where ice creams are made with genuine old-fashioned richness, featuring forgotten flavors, like teaberry and Hydrox cookies, plus decadent sundaes topped with flaming homemade marshmallows. My ultimate Franklin cone? The seasonal honeycomb ice cream lined with rippling veins of golden brittle made from honey in the Fountain's own rooftop hives. Are the employees' period costumes a bit corny? You bet. But this is at least one good example where historical kitsch and great flavors combine for a real Philadelphia experience that locals can be proud of.