It’s not actually always sunny in Philadelphia, but it can feel that way when you take a culinary tour of the city. Cheesesteaks, Tastykakes and flavored sodas all got their start in the City of Brotherly Love. Here, yummy goodies like stromboli, water ice and roast pork sandwiches collide with Pennsylvania Dutch treats like soft pretzels, bologna and shoofly pies. There’s even a Philadelphia pepper pot (made with something called tripe) for adventurous eaters.
Wake up your taste buds for this journey to the best food destinations in Philly.
The battle for cheesesteak supremacy dates back to this sandwich’s invention in the 1930s. Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks have beef – literally – and because they are located across the street from each other, they duke it out for the cheesesteak crown 24/7. Other favorites include John’s Roast Pork, Tony Luke’s and Ralph & Rickey’s, but whichever you choose, ask for “cheese whiz wit onions” for the true Philly cheesesteak experience.
Roast Pork Sandwiches
No trip to Philly is complete without a stop at the Reading Terminal Market. While you’re there, stop by DiNic’s Roast Pork for its flagship roast pork sandwich, voted Best Sandwich in America in 2012. This other staple in the sandwich paradise that is Philadelphia is stuffed with roast pork, broccoli rabe and provolone cheese. It’s an incredibly savory sandwich that truly gives the cheesesteak a run for its money.
If you like cold pizza, you’ll love tomato pie. This South Philly staple is made like a square Sicilian pizza without cheese and served cold or at room temperature. It’s often loaded with oregano and Parmesan cheese, which definitely gives it a strong flavor. This regional delight can be found at old-school Italian bakeries like Marchiano’s Bakery and specialty restaurants like Gaeta’s Tomato Pie and Tony’s Famous Tomato Pie.
Pepper Pot Soup
Stew on this: Philly pepper pot soup has a history. It originated in the 18th century and was used to feed hungry soldiers during the American Revolution. Philly chefs have perfected this stew of vegetables, pepper and tripe, which is the edible lining of sheep stomachs. If you haven’t already skipped to the next topic, you can try this American classic where the founding fathers did, at City Tavern Restaurant in the Old Town District of the city.
Stromboli was purportedly invented in the 1950s in Essington, Pa., just outside of Philly. It’s a rolled pizza dough stuffed with delicious Italian meats like pepperoni, capicola and salami, cheese and sometimes veggies. It is NOT a calzone, which is made by folding the dough (and thus totally different). Stogie Joe’s gets a ton of love for its stromboli, as does Cacia’s Bakery, which also has a world-class tomato pie. And on that note…
While many cities claim to be the inventor of the submarine sandwich, Philly has a proud origin story for its take, the hoagie. According to legend, Italian workers made the sandwich – an Italian roll topped with sliced meats, cheese and lettuce – while working on Hog Island, the nickname for a World War I-era shipyard in Philly. The Hog Island sandwich was branded the hoagie and was named the official sandwich of Philadelphia in 1992.
Italian influence on Philly foods is strong, and water ice is a Philly version of Italian ice, the sweetened frozen dessert made from fruit, sugar and water. One main difference is that it water ice is looser than Italian ice – that and it’s pronounced “wooder ice.” Cool down with traditional flavors at Tranzilli’s Real Italian Water Ice, which has been owned and operated by the same family since 1969 or visit Siddiq’s Real Fruit Water Ice for flavors like strawberry coconut and kiwi.
Popular soda brands like Hires Root Beer got their start in Philly, and there are several old-timey diners and ice cream parlors that keep the city’s soda tradition alive. Nifty Fifty’s claims to have the world’s largest soda fountain with more than 100 handcrafted flavors, including pineapple cheesecake and chocolate marshmallow. The Franklin Fountain is another sure bet, with its hot milkshakes, hot sodas and fresh baked goods.
Warm, soft pretzels were the street hot dog of early 1900s Philly. Today, you can still grab one at a downtown food cart, but you’re better off heading to a specialty bakery. Center City Soft Pretzel Co.uses three ingredients to make its delicious twists, plus it opens at 4 a.m. for a perfect late-night snack. Of course, you really can’t go wrong with anything on this list of stops in this underrated food city.
For more delicious local eats, check out our Northeast food guide.
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