Philly Foods

The Foods of Philadelphia
by Mark Glicksman
|Introduction| |Soft Pretzels| |Philly Sandwiches| |Hoagies|
|Steaks| |Where to Get| |If You Can't Get There|

Most every city lays claim to at least one food as its own. Some are absolutely wonderful - San Francisco has its sourdough bread, Boston its chowder, Memphis its barbecue, and Chicago its fabulous hot dogs! Philadelphia surely possesses two of the best - the soft pretzel and The Italian sandwich, a category that includes both the hoagie and the cheese steak, among others.

You can find representations of these foods elsewhere. But, only in Philadelphia and its environs can you find the real thing. You might get a soft pretzel at a mall in Cincinnati or a "Philly Cheese Steak" at a cafe in California and wonder "What's the big deal?" Come to Philadelphia, and you'll find out.

The Philadelphia Soft Pretzel
The origins of the Philadelphia soft pretzel can be traced back to a strong Germanic influence during the early history of Pennsylvania. During the 1700's, a large proportion of Pennsylvania's population spoke German - in fact German almost became the official language! The "Pennsylvania Dutch" (more correctly called Pennsylvania Germans) still speak an old German dialect. And, many places in southeastern Pennsylvania bear German names. Along with the language came a tradition of pretzel making.

The true Philadelphia soft pretzel:

  • is usually bought from a street vendor or small "mom and pop" shop - seldom from a chain store
  • is fresh, soft, and chewy
  • comes in a sort of slab in which a number of pretzels are stuck together
  • is sprinkled with just the right amount of coarse salt
Here are a few tips for choosing a good pretzel:
  • Never buy pretzels that are wrapped in plastic. They are almost guaranteed to be stale, soggy, or hard. The best packaging is a brown paper bag.
  • If the pretzels look in the least bit moist, pass them up. Moisture is caused by the extraction of water by the salt. This indicates that the pretzel has been sitting around too long.
  • Avoid pretzels that have been reheated by the vendor. They are usually hard.
  • Look for a golden brown color and a "fresh" appearance. If the pretzel looks good, it probably is good.
Most Philadelphians enjoy their pretzels with a liberal coating of yellow mustard (Skip the Dijon please!), which is usually applied by the customer himself from a squeeze bottle. I like to scrape off most of the salt with my fingers before applying the mustard. There's enough salt residue left on the pretzel to make it taste salty without overdosing on sodium.

Don't accept imitations. Believe me, the true Philadelphia pretzel is worth the search! It will make your taste buds very happy indeed. And, it will make you very happy because it's a true "comfort food".

The Italian Sandwiches of Philadelphia

Italian Americans have settled throughout the Philadelphia region. But, the cultural heart of this community is certainly South Philadelphia - where you can find row houses with scrubbed front steps and ornately decorated interiors - and where traditions die very hard. Out of South Philadelphia have come the sandwiches that I consider Philadelphia's greatest contribution to the culinary arts. What makes them so special? The answer is simple - it's the rolls! Deep within South Philadelphia are bakeries whose hearths yield Italian rolls of unspeakable perfection. Their crust has a medium texture, midway between the hard crust of a baguette and the wimpy crust of a packaged supermarket roll. And, the interior is soft, with a wonderful yeasty taste.

These long rolls are the essential and irreplaceable ingredient of a true Philadelphia sandwich. Early each morning, they travel in brown paper bags from South Philly to small sandwich shops throughout the city and suburbs. You simply cannot make an authentic Philadelphia sandwich without an authentic Philadelphia roll. You can't freeze it, and you can't ship it. You cannot make a true Philadelphia sandwich in Los Angeles, or Chicago, or New Orleans, or even in New York. If you are more than a 1 hour drive from South Philly, forget it - give it up!

Philadelphia Sandwiches Explained


A hoagie is what you might think of as a hero or a submarine sandwich. But, it's not the same. Slice a fresh Philadelphia Italian roll. Sprinkle lightly with oil. Then add shredded lettuce, onions, your sandwich fillings, and sliced tomato. Finally, sprinkle with oregano, basil, salt, and pepper. A Philadelphia hoagie normally contains cheese in addition to the specified filling. So, for example, a roast beef hoagie contains roast beef plus cheese. The cheese is normally sliced provolone. If you don't want cheese make sure you say "No cheese". Pickles are almost never used in a Philadelphia hoagie.

Hoagie Varieties:

  • Italian or "regular" - Italian hams and salamis
  • Ham - American style ham
  • Tuna - tuna salad
  • Roast Beef
  • Turkey - turkey breast
  • Cheese - just cheese - usually a few varieties
  • Vegetarian - lettuce, tomato, onions, peppers, sometimes eggplant, plus cheese of course
Hoagie Variations:
  • "Dry" - hold the oil - less fat, but still tastes great
  • "With Mayo" - to many (including me), it sounds sacrilegious, but hoagies are occasionally ordered with mayo instead of oil
  • "No Onions" - for certain social occasions - however, definitely less tasty
  • "With Hot Peppers" - add sliced hot cherry peppers (medium hot flavor)
  • "With Sweet Peppers" - add jarred sweet peppers
  • "No Cheese" - for those who want to cut fat or who don't want to mix cheese with meat - still tastes great
  • "With American Cheese" - substitute American cheese for the provolone


Although most people outside of Philadelphia are familiar with the Philadelphia cheese steak, locals think in terms of steak sandwiches with or without cheese. Without cheese, the sandwich is referred to as a "steak" (not a "steak sandwich"). With cheese, it's a "cheese steak" (or "cheesesteak" - both spellings are in use). Beware of any restaurant, even in Philadelphia, that offers a "Philly Cheese Steak". Most likely, you will be disappointed. If they have to say "Philly", then it's not authentic!

A Philly steak is not really a steak at all - it's a sandwich made with shredded beef, cooked on a grill top. The story is often told of the Philadelphian who ventures to a restaurant in Chicago. He orders his favorite, a "steak". After some discussion, the waiter determines that what the customer really wants is a steak sandwich. He returns with a beautiful thick Chicago steak on a piece of white bread. The customer is appalled!

Philly Steak Variations:

  • "With Onions" - add fried onions
  • "With Raw Onions"
  • "With Sauce" - top with tomato sauce
  • "Pizza Steak" - a cheese steak with tomato sauce
  • "With Hot Peppers" - add sliced hot cherry peppers (medium hot flavor)
  • "With Sweet Peppers" - add jarred sweet peppers
  • "With Cooked Peppers" - as above, but grill the peppers first
  • "Steak Hoagie" - a steak sandwich with fresh tomatoes, raw onion, cheese, and herbs - can also be ordered "without cheese"
  • "Chicken Steak" and "Chicken Cheese Steak" - substitute grilled shredded chicken for the beef - a new concept that is seeking a market among tradition bound Philadelphians - worth a try, but not as good as the original.
  • "Vegetarian Cheese Steaks" - you can get these at Citizen's Bank ballpark in Philly. What's in them? I don't know!
The "Philly Lean" It seems that a well dressed visitor was in town. Desiring to partake of a rea He was taken to South Philly by his friend, a native Philadelphian. Knowing how much Mr. Clinton likes to eat (and no slouch himself), Rendell offered the President a steak from Pat's. As Mr. Clinton was about to take his first bite, our Mayor asked him if he was familiar with the Philly "lean," a necessary adjunct to a steak sandwich from Pat's. Mr. Clinton ignored the remark, opting , instead, to take a big bite. No dummy, however, as the juice dripped onto his suit front and sleeve, Mr. Clinton smiled, said, "Oh, I get it!" and bent forward before he took his second bite!

Where to Get a Philadelphia Sandwich

But, the best place to enjoy a Philadelphia sandwich is in one of the hundreds of small deli's and luncheonettes that dot the area. If you know a local, asking him for a recommendation.


If You Just Can't Get to Philly

If you just can't get to the Philadelphia area, there are places around the country (and the world) that offer "Philly" sandwiches and pretzels. But... they won't be the same - or even close to the real thing. So, make the trip.


Revised May 23, 2008
Copyright © 1995 - 2008 Glicksman Associates, Inc. All rights reserved.