Thanks to a long history of immigration, imagination and scrappy ingenuity, Philadelphia is full of city-specific culinary treasures. These are the regional favorites not to miss while you’re in town.
Dozens of regional pizza styles proliferate across the country, but only in Philly will you find the variety so snazzy it’s called pizzazz. Pizzazz is not about the type of dough, shape of the pie or vessel in which it’s cooked but about an unusual topping trifecta: sliced fresh tomatoes and chopped spicy-tangy pickled banana peppers on a canvas of American cheese. Yes, that’s right, American cheese. Don’t knock it till you try it—and the place to try it is Celebre’s, a vintage pizza parlor in Packer Park, or Cacia’s Bakery near Girard Estate if you’re eating on the go.
Some locals say, if you don’t know what scrapple is, don’t ask, just eat. That’s not bad advice; this breakfast meat, which you can find throughout the Mid-Atlantic but really lives and breathes here in Philly, is absolutely delicious. But if you’re the curious type, imagine a savory porridge of pork scraps and innards thickened with buckwheat or some other starch, set in loaf pan, sliced and fried till crispy and brown. When it’s done right—the way it is at classic sandwich shop John’s Roast Pork or at the Dutch Eating Place at Reading Terminal Market—the exterior is thick and crusty while the interior is almost molten. Just give it a chance.
Stock’s Pound Cake
Blocky, iced thick and yellow as butter (of which it contains plenty), the pound cake from Stock’s Bakery is a dessert icon served at birthday parties and family gatherings all across Northeast Philly. You can pick up a loaf at the plainspoken bakery or try a slice toasted and garnished with berries at Bait & Switch, a Port Richmond seafood tavern where the manager, Sarah Stock, is a member of the bakery’s founders.
“Back in the day—and still around in old-school spots— fish cakes were on the menu of every lunch counter and hot dog stand back in the city,” says acclaimed illustrator and frankfurter aficionado Hawk Krall. At some point, these breaded cod-and-potato cakes joined up with a hot dog on the same bun and became the Philly Combo, “the exact originator [of which] is unknown but it was definitely popularized at the legendary Levis’ Hot Dogs” open from 1896 till 1990 on 6th and South Streets. Try the combo now at Johnny’s Hots in Fishtown or Texas Weiners in South Philly.
Created by Chickie’s & Pete’s, a local chain of seafood houses that originated in Northeast Philly, Crabfries are so oft-imitated the owner had to get the name trademarked. Served by the basket (or the bucket if you happen to be at one of Chickie’s sports arena stands) with white cheese sauce, these fries are stubby, crinkled and dusted with an addicting secret spice blend that gets under your nails and into your head.
Though Philadelphia is home to many Italian-Americans who trace their lineage to Abruzzo, the mountainous region’s cuisine wasn’t properly expressed until Le Virtu opened on East Passyunk Avenue. One of the restaurant’s unusual specialties is the maccheroni alla mugnaia, or pasta in the style of the miller’s wife, according to Virtu’s owner, Francis Ceratola. “The dish is believed to date to the 1340s when the Dukes of Atri, the Acquaviva family, decreed that the molini (mills) be built along the Fino river,” he explains. It’s comprised of a single continuous noodle, rolled thin up to 50 feet, dressed with olive oil, garlic and hot pepper and served on a wooden board for family-style twirling. Philly is the only place you can get it without buying a plane ticket.