Local Dish: Cheesesteak (Blog)

Lining Up [Flickr CC via @pgargagl]
A cheesesteak is best enjoyed late after the bar closes while doing the South Philly Lean – standing hunched over the plastic outdoor table to avoid getting grease in your lap.

Philadelphia’s signature sandwich is a gooey mess but hardly seems complex. The venerable cheesesteak piles thinly sliced rib-eye topped with cheese of the American variety onto a long Italian roll.

The proper South Philly way to order is similarly to the point:  “Whiz witt” (“cheeze whiz with onions”)  “American widdout” (no onions). “Provi witt” (gross)

Encouraged by its perceived simplicity, other cities around the world try to impersonate this iconic dish but cannot match that Philly flair. Proud locals may reference the Amaroso bakery rolls from the neighborhood, or talk technically about baking bread with that Philly “wudder”.

Those top chefs who try to elevate this humble sandwich with horseradish spreads or brie speckled with shallots get something completely different – a steak and cheese sandwich. Sounds tasty, but certainly not a cheesesteak. Barclay Prime serves up a ridiculous cheesesteak of  kobe steak, foie gras, truffles, and Taleggio – a $100 sandwich, about 15 times the normal price.

The real Philly cheesesteak had more humble origins, costing five cents when it debuted in 1933. A South Philly hot dog vender, Pat Olivieri decided to cook himself a little different for dinner.  Tossing beef on his grill, the sizzle on the street enticed a passing cab who demanded his own.

Pat’s on Left, Gino’s on Right [ Flickr CC via @roboppy]
As the story goes, news spread by the very next day when many cab drivers arrived from around the city to try the tasty lunch.  By 1940, Olivieri opened his own place to sell the creation, Pat’s King of Steaks,  still at the same location today at 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue.   A friendly competitor, Joe Vento opened Geno’s next door in 1966, but there is plenty of business around the clock for the two shops both open 24 hours a day.

Both Geno’s and Pat’s claim to be first to add the cheese.  Prior to that epiphany, patrons simply asked for a “steak witt. ”   Aside from close proximity or bragging rights, a more serious controversy arose in 2009, when Geno’s posted small signs in their window telling customers, “This Is AMERICA: WHEN ORDERING `SPEAK ENGLISH.”‘

This caused media outrage in defense of  the  diverse residents of the City of Brotherly Love.  I usually avoid the drama and head straight to Carmen’s, a  South Philly family-owned stand in the historic Reading Terminal Market. No matter which shop you prefer, or if you order speaking Spanish or South Philadelphian, this local dish cannot be missed in Philadelphia.


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