The best and most authentic way to experience Philadelphia is to taste the city’s signature philly cheese steak. As your taste buds delight from the flavor overload and your senses revel in this gastronomical marvel, the history and sights become the dessert to the main course.
Philadelphia or Philly to locals, called the city of brotherly love, is the second most populous city in the north eastern United States. Founded by William Penn in 1682, this colony was to house people irrespective of their faith. As a Quaker (commonly referred to as the Religious Society of Friends), Penn suffered from religious persecution and was adamant in nurturing Philly as a society that would house residents with spiritual and religious freedom. After William Penn, Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s founding fathers, was instrumental in developing the city and designing its architecture.
Philadelphia’s central location made it a natural choice for America’s revolutionaries and it served as a capital of the United States from 1790 until 1800. Philadelphia also hosted the convening of the Continental Congress as well as the writings of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution of the United States. The Independence National Historic Park, which houses the Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell, stands testimony to this. Today, Philadelphia is renowned for its prestigious cultural scene and its sporting legends—Phillies, Philadelphia Eagles, Philadelphia Flyers and 76ers.
Although Philadelphia provides numerous sights for the regular tourist, the best and most pleasurable way to capture the city’s rhythm is by journeying through the culinary scenes. The city conducts several tours to tantalize and educate us of the city’s culinary sights. The tour guides are extremely accommodating (as Christine was with our toddler) and are experts at weaving together fascinating stories about the city’s landscape and food culture.
The tours promise behind the scenes looks at restaurant kitchens, undiscovered food meccas, home brewing experiences, sneak peeks into a Buddhist shrine, scrumptious Vietnamese hoagie tastings, luscious gelato and decadent chocolate truffle tryouts. Every morsel is peppered with fun facts and the guides are known to be local foodies with perfectly amicable personalities.
We narrowed down our food tour choice to Flavors of Philly as this was child friendly and highly recommended for first time visitors. The tour was from 1:30pm-4pm giving us plenty of time to do some sightseeing on our own. Plus the promise of a bona fide Philly cheese steak motivated us into signing up. (The tours are $39/adult; $29/child ages 10-14, non-refundable and can be reserved online.) The short walks and minimal stops were ideal for our toddler and the groups were small (four couples).
We started our trek at Saxby’s Coffee Stand located in the Shops at Liberty Place.
Christine, the tour guide, showed up early and eased us into the tour with a bright smile and chilled water bottles. (Throughout the tour she would indulge us with second servings and more bottles of water). From the first stop, our history lesson began. Liberty Place was constructed amidst widespread opposition. It was considered a violation of the gentleman’s agreement that no structure would be built in the Center City that would be taller than Philadelphia City Hall, which bore the statue of William Penn. Despite public resistance, officials considered this a viable opportunity that would bring needed business and jobs. With the Mayor favoring the project, Liberty Place began construction in 1985 and was open to the public by 1990. Liberty Place stood high and tall dotting the city skyline but it would also bring about the Curse of Billy Penn. The curse was used to explain the failure of major professional sports teams based in Philadelphia to win championships since the construction of the One Liberty Place skyscraper. The curse was lifted only after ironworkers raised the final beam in the construction of the Comcast Center at 17th Street in 2007. In an attempt to end the curse, workers fashioned a figurine of William Penn to the tallest beam along with an American flag and a small evergreen tree. The Phillies won the World Championship on October 29, 2008 much to the relief of sports fans in Philadelphia.
With this interesting history tidbit, we strolled outdoors and set foot in the first restaurant for the day.
Middle or Corner?
That is the question you often encounter when ordering the tomato pie from Joe’s Pizza. Tomato pie, a Philly staple, is a rectangular sibling of the famed pizza minus the cheese. (Unlike the typical pizza, the tomato pie is derived from the Sicilian pizza). Philly prides itself on its unique pizza sauces and the one at Joe’s Pizza was a winner. The tomato pie traces its origins in Philly to at least 1910, when Iannelli’s opened. The best tomato pies have a thick bready crust, a generous layer of tomato sauce (or “gravy,” as it’s known in South Philly), and are cooked in a brick oven. Joe’s Pizza boasts of a traditional family recipe (as is the case in most places) and the luscious taste vouched for their proud legacy (We even said no to offers of grated cheese).
Our next stop was the celebrated Philly Pretzel Factory. The average Philadelphian today consumes about twelve times as many pretzels as the national average. Soft pretzels which are unique to this city were first introduced by the Pennsylvania Dutch settlers. The Factory was teeming with patrons and instead of waiting for the crowd to thin, Christine ushered us to a steakhouse that held many surprises.
Del Frisco’s, the double eagle steakhouse restaurant was housed inside a historic landmark that was once First Pennsylvania Bank. The Vault Room, once the location of the bank’s safe deposit boxes, was now transformed into a private dining enclosure. Although this was amusing, what took our breath away was the centerpiece—a two story wine vault (armed with 2,500 bottles). The interiors were lavishly decorated and the ambience was in tune with the numerous accolades this fine dining place has been bestowed with.
Still reeling from the staggering decor we stepped outside to a view of the City Hall. This masonry building, as mentioned before, has a bronze statue of the city’s founder William Penn atop it.
We went back to the Pretzel Factory where the crowds had thinned and we were able to try the delicious soft pretzels. Next stop Pat and Geno’s for the famed philly cheese steak.
A city icon and an obsession, a cheese steak is a long, crusty roll filled with thinly sliced sautéed rib eye beef and melted cheese. For vegetarians the beef is replaced with fried peppers and onions. First time patrons are also treated to Pat and Geno’s story. Pat Olivieri was a South Philadelphia hot dog vendor who once decided to put some beef from the butcher on his grill. A cab driver seduced by the aroma came in asking for his signature steak sandwich. And so the philly steak began its run. The cheese addendum is a topic of endless debate between Pat and Geno loyalists.
The final lap of this tour commenced from the Reading Terminal Market which is an important tourist landmark and serves as a place of culinary treats and unique merchandise. The Flying Monkey Bakery was a sweet sensation and the truffles and cookies were sinfully delicious. Be sure to try a slice of the pumpple cake which is a cake pie hybrid and is sure to send your senses into a spiral.
After bidding adieu to Christine we plopped on the Market’s seating area. The bite size portions promised everywhere combined together to form a neat meal. With our bellies full, we reveled in the aromas and sights around us. Food holds an important key to understanding a city’s psyche. With Philly offering an impressive and unforgettable gustatory experience, you simply have to submit to its culinary extravaganza.
Meera Ramanathan is a columnist focusing on her dual passions—food and travel. A voracious reader, she also writes about immigration melodramas, cinema and parenting woes. She tweets at @meeraramanathan and blogs at Lost in Thought.(http://dreamzwild.wordpress.com)