To quote one of my favorite 90s movies, “The food alone is worth the trip!”
No, I’m not talking about Europe. I’m drooling over our very own Philadelphia.
Not only should a food tour of Philly include a broad sampling of their infamous cheesesteaks, but there’s a wide range of local delicacies that are not to be missed!
But where does one start?
Well that’s easy! The Reading Terminal Market.
Lunch – Reading Terminal Market and Roast Pork
Whether you take a train into the station or drive in and use their large parking garage, this is the place to start your food tour.
The Market alone is a sight that can take hours to see, but the crowned food jewel here is Dinic’s and the ‘roast pork.’
The ‘roast pork’ is a sandwich that could challenge the almighty cheesesteak in its greatness. And Dinic’s is nationally famous for theirs.
This sandwich is simple, yet amazing. Slow roasted pork, hand sliced sharp provolone and broccoli rabe combine to create a more sophisticated option to the greasy cheesesteak – but just as delicious.
Another sandwich stop in the Terminal Market that you should not miss is Hershel’s East Side Deli. Here you can get a Jewish-style Rueben or corned beef sandwich piled higher than any sandwich has a right to.
And to cleanse your palate of all that grease, you can swing by Bassett’s Ice Cream — the oldest ice cream company in America!
Now that you’ve indulged in Philly’s less notorious eats, you’re ready to tackle the big boy – the Philly cheesesteak.
Cheesesteak: The Real Deal
First let me clear up one thing that divides the true Philly gourmets from the rest of the country.
It’s a cheesesteak, not a “steak and cheese.”
A real Philly cheesesteak can seemingly only be found inside the city limits. I swear, you cross over just one street from the city and the real thing disappears.
You see, a Philly cheesesteak only comes one of two ways – “Whiz wit’” or “Whiz wit’out.”
A real Philly cheesesteak consists of a sub roll, steak, Cheez Whiz (heated to a near boil) and either “wit onions” or “wit’out onions.”
No mayo, lettuce or tomato. No provolone cheese. Any of those and you are eating a steak and cheese. Request any of those inside the city, and you will be heaped with scorn – and might not even get served.
When ordering at a real cheesesteak joint, you shouldn’t even use the word “cheesesteak.” You merely indicated the number of ‘steaks desired, followed by your cheese and onion choice. But to be honest, there really isn’t a cheese option. It’s only Whiz.
So for one cheesesteak, you simply declare in a firm clear voice, without any elaboration, “One Whiz wit.”
And you certainly cannot say “please” or “thank you” or “Hi, I’d like a…” Philly cheesesteak joints pride themselves on their rudeness and their food quality.
Now, whether or not you get the fried onions is up to your personal taste, but I can’t recommend wit’ onions enough.
Late Night: Cheesesteak Challenge
But where to order your real Philly cheesesteak?
The options are truly limitless inside the city. But a trip to Pat’s and to Gino’s is a must.
These two locations are at the southernmost end of the renowned open-air Italian Market of 9th Street.
Pat’s King of Steaks is the undisputed creator of the Philly cheesesteak. And across the street — quite literally — is the competition, opened by his traitorous former-employee, Gino.
Whereas Pat’s is understated and reserved, Gino’s is lit up like a neon carnival.
But which is best? That’s the stuff of blood-feuds in South Philly.
It’s a true Philly tradition to order at one, then walk across the street and order at the other to compare.
Personally, I think I’d vote Gino’s best WHEN they cook their onions enough. But I’ve often gotten undercooked onions there — which can put Pat’s ahead.
Either way, this stop provides 24 inches of Whiz-covered goodness!
However, don’t let that be your only cheesesteak stop!
Let’s back Up: Mid-Afternoon “Snack”
Don’t let a South Philly resident hear you repeat this, but for my taste buds, the very best ‘steak in town is Sonny’s on Market Street down near the river.
While it ain’t part of South Philly, it’s at least on the south side of the road!
This joint is also indoors and air conditioned, so it makes for a more pleasant atmosphere. Especially if, as I recommend, you go there earlier in the day.
In fact, on our Food Coma Tour of Philly, I would send you directly from Reading Terminal Market to Sonny’s before you head south for Pat’s and Gino’s.
It’s a straight shot down Market Street — and if you feel the need to burn off some calories, you can stop along the way to tour Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell.
And since Pat’s and Gino’s are open quite late, it’s best to save them for your last stop of the day.
When you are ready to head south, just take 10th Street down until you see the garish neon display that is Gino’s. If you are arriving after dark, you can see the glow of Gino’s from a low orbit.
But before you wrap up your food tour with some late night ‘steaks, there’s a sweeter gem to discover.
Italian Market – “Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli”
There’s a reason The Godfather mobsters made sure not to forget the cannoli. This Italian dessert stands head-and-shoulders above mere cakes and cookies.
At the very northern end of the Italian Market, about a block west on Christian Street, is the Italian bakery Isgro Pastries.
Legend has it, Isgro’s was founded by an apprentice of Sicilian bakeries who stole their secrets and fled to the New World more than a century ago.
True or not, their cannoli is the best I’ve ever had. But I warn you, it will ruin all other cannoli for the rest of your life. They make it as old-fashioned as possible — and they are darn proud of it!
Their sweetened cheese filling laced with chocolate chips is packed into the crunchy pastry shell by silver spoon, which allows for a far denser filling than an icing bag. And then it’s all dusted with powdered sugar.
Most days you can get in and out of Isgro’s for a freshly assembled cannoli in a few minutes. But it’s so popular for holidays that the line starts forming at sunrise and can stretch hours long!
Don’t be afraid to save your dessert for later, but make sure not to miss their 6pm closing.
And while you are there, work your way back to the corner of 9th and Christian for a slice of real Sicilian pizza from Lorenzo’s.
Lorenzo’s is my favorite pie in the city and is your chance to sample authentic styles of pizza you’re not likely to see offered anywhere else.
So there’s the plan. Start at Reading Terminal Market for a lunch of roast pork, corned beef, and ice cream.
Then mosey on down to the river for your first cheesesteak.
After that, start your exploration of the Italian Market by grabbing some real Sicilian pizza and real cannoli at the north end.
Finally, wrap up your tour by taking the Pat’s and Gino’s Challenge by the radiant glow of neon lights!
Oh, you’ll be dead by your last bite of Cheesesteak for sure! But can you think of a better way to go?