It is a pretty simple culinary invention, but one that carries a whole heap of history and divides a city’s loyalties as completely as any sporting rivalry. It is the cheesesteak and, if you are a Philadelphian, you’ll instinctively know the answer to the question ‘Pat’s or Geno’s?’.
There are certain things everyone can agree on with respect to the Philadelphia cheesesteak. It is a sandwich. It features thin pieces of steak (leaving aside the debate over whether this should be sliced or chopped) and melted cheese. It is served in a long, white roll.
After this, it starts to get messy. Who invented the cheesesteak? Probably impossible to say – putting steak, cheese and bread together is not the most revolutionary of culinary steps. There are Philadelphian records of a sandwich ‘combining frizzled beef, onions and cheese in a small loaf of bread’. But this is not exactly the Philly cheesesteak we see today.
The modern cheesesteak is often credited to Pat and Harry Olivieri, who sold their sandwich on hoagie rolls in south Philadelphia’s Italian Market in the early 1930s. Pat Olivieri would be the namesake for Pat’s, the first of the two great cheesesteak rivals.
The great cheesesteak rivalry is a thing of wonder. Head down to the intersection of South 9th Street, Wharton Street and East Passyunk Avenue and you’ll see two large buildings facing, and facing off, each other. Pat’s is almost demure and discreet with a large blue sign and a white front. Geno’s screams its presence in loud orange and neon signs.
Pat’s (Pat’s King of Steaks to give it its full name) opened in 1930 as a hot dog stall, and, according to family tradition, served the first steak sandwich in 1933. Pat’s continue to sell steak sandwiches, leaving the cheesesteak designation to its younger, brasher neighbour Geno’s Steaks. Geno’s was founded in 1966 by Joey Vento.
How to order
This should be simple, right? Wrong. Ordering a cheesesteak at either of these world famous stores (or anywhere else in Philly) follows a time honoured, prescriptive and quick routine. You can’t mess this up – a distinctly unimpressed server at the counter and a long line of customers ensure you only have a few seconds to convey your order. Just follow these simple steps:
- Decide whether to go to Pat’s or Geno’s – if you are visiting friends or relatives, they’ll take you to their favourite. Otherwise it is much of a muchness – for the record, I prefer Geno’s.
- Stand in line, work out what you’ll order and get your cash ready – no credit cards accepted!
- Now it is time to order the cheesesteak – the first window is only for your cheesesteak order – you can get drinks and fries at the next window. You only need to say two words to get your cheesesteak:
- Do you want it with (wit) or without (wit-out) onions?
- Which cheese? Whizz, American or Provolone?
So a cheesesteak with onions and cheese whizz is, very simply, ‘wit whizz’ (or, to add confusion, a ‘whizz wit’). A cheesesteak without onions with American cheese is ‘without American’.
4. Stand to the side and very soon you’ll be holding your warm, wrapped cheesesteak. If you want any extras, queue at the next window.
5. Condiments are on the side – a big dollop of ketchup goes particularly well.
Succeed in following these simple steps and you’ll have experienced a great Philly tradition. It is, of course, a load of hype and a bit of a tourist trap – this will be a terrible heresy for many but I’ve eaten a better cheesesteak on the shore of Lake Champlain in Vermont.
But, that said, you can’t visit Philadelphia and not indulge. I’ll have mine ‘wit provolone’. I’m allowed to have the ‘fancy’ cheese – I’m European!