I spend most of my time touting the latest highlights of the cosmopolitan dining scene Philadelphia has become.
But this city is also rich in some more enduring iconic foods, and the pride in our old traditions runs deep.
Our passion for cheesesteaks, pork sandwiches, and other local delicacies is fueled by fierce neighborhood loyalties and spoken with a local dialect that always seems most pronounced when it’s time to eat.
So, in the immortal question on my favorite T-shirt at Paesano’s: “Jaeatyet?”
I hope not. You require an appetite to accompany this guide to Philly’s signature flavors, excerpted from the Craig LaBan Ultimate Dining guide, recently delivered to subscribers. (Not a subscriber? You can order a copy; info is below.)
Few arguments 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), sandwiches cooked to order (avoid those piles of precooked meat) with deeply caramelized onions and crusty rolls that can hold the juicy drip.
John’s Roast Pork (14 E. Snyder Ave.) in 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. But I have 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 Philip’s Steaks (2234 W. Passyunk Ave.) for 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 long savor.
Before there were cheesesteaks (invented in 1930), roast pork was the standby sandwich for banquets in Italian South Philly. Again, John’s is the standard-bearer. But DiNic’s in the Reading Terminal Market is a worthy equal, especially when snuggled with long hots, greens, and sharp provolone. The “Arista” at Paesano’s (1017 S. Ninth St. and 152 W. Girard Ave.) is an irresistible version closer to the Italian suckling-pig original, with 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.)
Philly is understandably obsessed now with Vietnamese banh mi. But we’ll always be a blue-collar hoagie city first. Look for delis where meats are sliced to order and the fresh-baked rolls have a seeded crust. My current champ is Pastificio Deli (1528 Packer Ave.), where imported meats are carefully layered with sharp provolone and just the right amount of shredded veggies for a zesty signature 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. Columbus Blvd.), and Cosmi’s Deli (1501 S. Eighth St.). At Sarcone’s Deli (734 S. Ninth St.), I’m partial to the “Sinatra,” with fresh mozz, provolone, roasted garlic, and balsamic.
Red Gravy Italian
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.), where Vince Termini (of cannoli fame) has lovingly re-created the tender braciole and scripelle soup glories of his Italo-American red gravy youth.
Reading Terminal Market
Few institutions manage to be indispensable for tourists and locals alike, but the Reading Terminal is just that. The 124-year-old market remains the best single place in the city to shop for a big meal. Butcher shops like Giunta's, 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 my short list of favorite bites: the fresh 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; DiNic's sandwiches; 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; a scoop of Bassetts Ice Cream, or the world's best doughnuts and apple fritters 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.) 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.
"Craig LaBan's Ultimate Dining," a glossy, 52-page, magazine-style book that wraps up the food critic's 25 favorite restaurants, as well as lists such as favorite BYOBs, Chinatown, and Philadelphia classics, is available by mail, through this link, or in person at the newspaper's offices, 801 Market St. (entrance on Eighth Street), from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays ($5.95, cash only).