On Thursday, festivalgoers at a waterfront park in Baltimore will get the chance to try some of Philadelphia's regional specialties: meatballs and polenta, chicken cheesesteak bites, and an elegant twist on a Tastykake, all served up from a traveling food truck. Later this summer, denizens of Washington and Boston will get the same Philly treatment.
The truck, bright red and painted with images of the Liberty Bell, is giving away the samples. What it's selling is nostalgia. The project is the latest arm of "Homesick Philly," a campaign by Visit Philadelphia that's aimed at drawing not only first-timers to the city, but also former residents who have moved on. The hope, Visit Philly organizers say, is that tastes of the city will trigger warm memories, leading to more overnight stays and weekend visits.
The destinations for the truck were chosen based on research that pointed to pockets of former Philadelphians living in those cities, which are also close enough from which to travel easily.
"In researching those who have left but still have ties to Philadelphia, we found that people miss the neighborhoods; they miss the culture. But they also miss the food," said Meryl Levitz, longtime president of Visit Philadelphia, who is stepping down this year. "They miss Wawa."
The food truck, which launched in front of City Hall this week and offered samples to locals, will travel to D.C. on Aug. 8 and Boston on Aug. 16. It will serve three Philly-centric bites designed by local chefs: South Philly-style meatballs and red "gravy" over fontina polenta created by Marcie Turney, of Little Nonna's, Bud & Marilyn's, Barbuzzo, and other restaurants; chicken cheesesteak kebabs with spiced Cheez Whiz by Philly native Jennifer Carroll and Billy Riddle of Center City's Spice Finch; and candy cakes, based on the Tastykake, designed by Kurt Evans of South.
The $1.3 million Homesick Philly campaign, funded by grants through the state Department of Community and Economic Development, also includes giveaways and advertisements in Washington and New York media markets, as well as on social media and at a summer concert series in New York.
The idea originated several years ago with Levitz — and also with Philly hip-hop artist and entrepreneur Chill Moody. Moody said his travels, as the city's music ambassador and head of the local governing chapter for the Grammy Awards, kept bringing him face to face with former Philadelphians who wanted to reminisce.
"I'm going to all these places and wanting to learn about them, about what they do," he said. "I can barely get a word in — all they want to know is what's going on back home."
The truck also comes with postcards of Philly scenes that people can take and mail to friends or family.