If you’re headed to Philadelphia, chances are you’ve got cheesesteak on your mind. And yes, while you definitely do need to sample this Philly speciality, there’s so much more to love about the city’s eclectic food scene. From local favorites like juicy roast pork sandwiches, tomato pie, and soft pretzels to less traditional Philly-centric faves including pho, hand drawn noodles, and pomegranate-studded lamb shoulder, Philly’s culinary landscape may surprise you in its breadth and diversity. Below are 13 of the dishes you must try on your next visit to the City of Brotherly Love.
Sure, you could queue up in the (usually very long) lines with the rest of the tourists at Pat’s or Geno’s, but if you want a cheesesteak that locals crave, stroll just a bit further south to Cosmi’s Deli. This small, unassuming spot is named after Cosmi Quattro, the original owner in the 1930s, and it’s still family-owned and going strong. If you like a little heat, make sure to order your cheesesteak with long hots, Italian peppers with varying degrees of spiciness (which is why they’re sometimes called the Russian roulette of peppers).
If you’re further uptown when the cheesesteak craving strikes, check out Carmen’s Famous Italian Hoagies & Cheesesteaks located in Reading Terminal Market, a favorite eat-and-stroll location for tourists and locals alike. If you’re feeling adventurous, their Kamikaze cheesesteak is loaded with hot peppers, pepper jack cheese, and hot sauce. Plus, Carmen’s get bonus points for being President Obama’s cheesesteak choice when he visited in 2010.
If you’d prefer your cheesesteak meat unchopped (but still thinly sliced, of course!), Steve’s Prince of Steaks in Center City is your spot. You could get yours slathered in Cheese Whiz so you can say you tried it, but consider going for the more flavorful and pungent bite of sharp provolone.
Roast Pork Sandwich
While the cheesesteak may be the sandwich that most people visit Philly to try, the roast pork, once they’ve had one, is what they come back for. It’s so simple, yet so memorable: flavorful roast pork, sharp and gooey melted provolone, and the bitter bite of broccoli rabe nestled in a sesame seed roll, slathered in meaty pork juice. And it doesn’t get much more classic than the version at DiNic’s. Family-owned DiNic’s has been around in some form for 100 years (first as Nicolosi's Butcher Shop in 1918), and it’s safe to say over the years they’ve perfected the art of the roast pork sandwich.
But they aren’t without rivals: John’s Roast Pork in deep South Philly, the self-proclaimed “Home of the Original Roast Pork,” is considered by many locals to be the very best in the city. Rather than broccoli rabe, John’s goes with the more mild choice of spinach on their version, but the flavor doesn’t suffer: On any given day (except Sundays and Mondays, when they’re closed) there’s a long line of locals waiting to get their roast pork fix.
If you want to try something a bit different for a point of comparison, head to Bing Bing Dim Sum in the bustling Passyunk East restaurant district and try a roast pork bao bun. (Paired with a kimchi Bloody Mary, it’s the perfect hangover cure.)
When you hear “soft pretzel” you probably think of those dry, cardboard twists sold at mall food courts everywhere. Get that abomination out of your head: Philly soft pretzels are . . . well, actually soft. And they’re also chewy and downright delicious. This homemade regional specialty dates back to the 1800s, when German immigrants (Pennsylvania Dutch, or “Deutsch,”) began making the “bretzels” from their homeland.
You can can one of these local treats plain, with salt, dipped in cheese, and stuffed with just about anything from cheese to hot dogs. Tasty Twisters in Philly’s Manayunk neighborhood have been making their chewy pretzels from the same recipe for 100 years. Get your pretzel to go, take a stroll, and enjoy the small-town feel of this city neighborhood. And you can’t go wrong with Miller’s Twist in Reading Terminal Market, where the buttery carb masterpieces are made fresh daily. You might tell yourself you’re going to stop with just one — but we all know better.
A tomato pie is not actually a pie, nor is it quite a pizza, at least not a typical one. It's actually made with a thick focaccia-like crust, a generous layer of tangy tomato sauce and just a light dusting of cheese. It’s similar to Sicilian pizza, and you can generally find a version of tomato pie wherever Sicilian immigrants have settled. But South Philly is where the largest concentration of Italians settled in the 20th century, and as such, lays claim to being Ground Zero for authentic tomato pie.
Philadelphians have been heading to to Sarcone’s Bakery in the Italian Market for 90 years to get their tomato pie fix (as well as their legendary sesame seed hoagie rolls). But go early — they often sell out by noon. Or check out a real local secret — New York Italian Style Bakery (2215 S 11th St, Philadelphia, PA 19148, (215) 389-5912). They don’t even have a web site, but the food is so good, they don’t need one. Everybody in the neighborhood knows that this no-frills, no-seating place is the real deal for tangy tomato pie, served room temperature, as is traditional. Bring cash and an appetite.
Maybe where you come from you call it a sub or a grinder, but in Philly it’s called a hoagie and it’s the stuff sandwich dreams are made of. The Italian sub at Campo’s Deli in Old City is stuffed full of Dilusso salami, ham Capicola, peppered ham, pepperoni, prosciutto, and provolone. It’s the perfect lunch fuel after a morning spent seeing the historical sites of Old City.
On the other hand, think of Paesano's, north of Old City in Fishtown, as hoagies 2.0 — or maybe even 3.0. There is no bad choice on the menu, as the hoagies are nothing short of art. But if you’re jonesing for an Italian, the “Daddy Wad" hoagie is the pumped-up chef-y version of a classic Italian, with sharp provolone, mortadella, Genoa salami, sopressata and capicola lovingly wrapped around both hot and sweet peppers, and tomato. Rather than lettuce, arugula adds a peppery bite.
You may have had Italian ices or snow cones but you haven’t had a water ice (pronounced “wooder ice” in regional dialect) unless you’ve had it in Philadelphia. The texture is looser than standard Italian ice, and it’s completely unique to the area. Traditional water ice has just three ingredients: water, sugar, and fruit, and the best water ice places make theirs fresh throughout the day.
That’s just what they do at John’s Water Ice, a popular hot weather spot in the famed Italian Market since 1945. Choose from cherry, chocolate, pineapple, or lemon — or, if it’s hot enough outside, just get one of each. (John’s is open seasonally, so you’ll only be able to enjoy this treat in the warmer months.)
No one would argue that scrapple is a pretty food. After all, it’s leftover pig parts mixed with cornmeal and spices (such as thyme), fried into a cake. And yet, this Pennsylvania Dutch delicacy is a beloved Philadelphian breakfast staple. For good reason — it’s so much more delicious than it looks. And there’s no better place to try this real Amish dish than served up by real Amish folks at the Dutch Eating Place at Reading Terminal Market. Get it with grits or home fries and a stack of pancakes, and you’ll either be ready to attack the day — or to take a big post breakfast nap.
Roast Lamb Shoulder
This lamb shoulder at Zahav is admittedly a bit of a culinary unicorn. For one thing, it’s incredibly difficult to snag a seat at James-Beard award winning chef Michael Solomonov’s modern Israeli restaurant. To make matters more complicated, it’s not always on the menu, and even then it needs to be ordered in advance. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. The smoky, crispy lamb is slow braised in pomegranate molasses and chickpeas, and not only is it one of the best dishes in Philadelphia, by many accounts it’s one of the best in the country.
Philadelphia is home to the largest Vietnamese community on the East Coast, primarily clustered around the area north of the Italian Market, along Washington avenue. Here you’ll find a number of bustling Vietnamese shopping centers, markets, bakeries — and of course, some excellent pho joints. The late Anthony Bourdain raved about the offerings at the popular Pho 75, where he enjoyed a pho breakfast with chef Michael Solomonov while filming an episode of The Layover in 2012. Bourdain always had a knack for finding the best most authentic regional foods on his travels, and Pho 75 is no exception.
The nearby Le Viet serves up a no-less authentic and tasty pho, albeit in a more upscale ambiance than the no-frills Pho 75. Make no mistake, their beef pho is the real deal, with tripe and tendon studding the hearty soul-warming broth.
Fried Chicken & Donuts
Fried chicken isn’t usually what most visitors think of when they think of iconic Philly dishes. But that’s because they haven’t been to Federal Donuts. This local mini-chain — from Zahav star chef Michael Solomonov — is beloved by locals. And what’s not to love about crispy fried chicken and a hot, fresh donut? For a taste of sweet and salty carb heaven, try the fried chicken sandwich — served with ranch seasoning and American cheese on a Martin’s potato roll — paired with a surprisingly delicious and delicate strawberry lavender donut.
Hand Drawn Noodles
Philly is fortunate to have a thriving Chinatown, and there’s no shortage of authentic Asian delicacies and eateries to choose from. You could easily spend days — weeks even — eating your way through the neighborhood, but if you can only try one dish, go for the hand drawn noodles at Nan Zhou Noodle House especially if it’s cold outside.
The noodles are hand-pulled (or, if your prefer, knife cut) in-house, and then added to your choice of soup or stir fry. Few things are as nourishing to the soul as a piping hot bowl of noodle soup on a blustery day, especially the beef brisket, duck, or meatball.
Spinach (or Swiss Chard) Gnocchi with Brown Butter
Philly is home to one of the highest concentrations of Italian-Americans in the country, and it’s no exaggeration to say that in most parts of the city you could throw a dart and hit a decent Italian restaurant, particularly of the red sauce (or “red gravy” when in Philly) variety.
But Vetri Cucina is in a class of its own. Helmed by renowned chef Marc Vetri, in 1998 this establishment brought high-end, ingredient-driven Italian food to Philadelphia. Twenty years later it’s lost none of the attention to detail that made it a culinary destination. And there’s one dish on the tasting menu that is a must: the spinach (and sometimes, seasonally, Swiss chard) gnocchi in brown butter. No, it’s not a trendy dish; far from it. Rather, it’s a perfectly executed classic — and quite possibly the best gnocchi you will ever taste.
Lots of cities have passable tacos. Some, like Austin, Texas, even have fabulous tacos. But no one has South Philly Barbacoa. Since David Chang featured it on "Ugly Delicious" and Bon Appetit named it one of the best restaurants in the country, it’s not exactly a secret anymore. But the hype around this local favorite is well deserved. Just three days a week — Saturdays through Mondays — Chef Cristina Martinez serves up her slow-cooked barbacoa style tacos to eager and hungry hordes. Don’t be tempted to sleep in, she sells out early — for good reason.