In Philadelphia, the cheesesteak reigns supreme. But there is more to the city's lively culinary scene than choosing between 'Whiz wit' (a steak sandwich with Cheese Whiz and fried onions) and 'provi widdout' (provolone, no onions).
There are taco stands, of course, and Chinese food trucks, soul food takeaway counters and falafel carts. But what makes the local food unique is the unlikely collision of two seemingly disparate groups – the rowdy butchers and sausage-makers of the Italian immigrant sector, and the pious Amish who carry traditional pastries from their farmhouse kitchens to the city markets. For an authentic taste of Philly, sample their signature dishes at these time-tested food stands around town.
This hot-weather treat – a sugary, ice-cold hybrid of smoothie, sorbet and Italian ice – is a Philadelphia invention with Italian roots. Traditionally, water ice is prepared with classic fruit flavours like cherry or lemon, then ladled into paper cups. One of the city's oldest purveyors of the smooth, sticky-sweet dessert is John's Water Ice, dishing out four simple varieties since 1945. To really get into a summery spirit, take a water ice tour of South Philly, starting at John's, then moving onto another local favourite, Italiano's Water Ice (2551 South 12th Street). Fans say the fresh fruit juice and hard ice cream (versus the soft-serve used at many water ice stands) makes Italiano's version a few licks above the rest.
The rolling hills of Lancaster County, not far outside the city of Philadelphia, are home to a thriving Amish population. They work the land with horse-drawn tractors, tend to their vegetable gardens, milk cows, churn their own butter and labour in farmhouse kitchens to produce the time-honoured dishes of Pennsylvania’s Dutch Country. Rather amazingly – considering that the Amish value privacy and choose to live apart from the modern world around them – some families bring their traditional delicacies to vendors' booths at the Reading Terminal Market. Farm-fresh homemade breads, apple fritters, sticky buns and chocolate fudge are available at several of the Amish-run stands; a must-sample is the famous, molasses-rich shoo-fly pie at Beiler's Bakery.
In a city where cheesesteak dominates the sandwich scene, the Italian hoagie also inspires a fair amount of fanatical devotion to neighbourhood delis, complete with heated debates about who makes it best. Traditionally, the submarine-style sandwich features a fresh Italian roll drizzled with oil, stuffed with sliced tomatoes, onions, shredded lettuce, provolone cheese and Italian-style ham and salami, all sprinkled with oregano and basil. Locals swear by the hoagies at Chickie's Italian Deli (1014 Federal Street), PrimoHoagies (both in South Philly, though the latter now has franchises all over town) and Sarcone's Deli at the Italian Market.
This rich Italian-style ice cream – a European import, of course – gets an extra kick in Philadelphia thanks to the fresh milk and cream sourced from nearby Amish farms. The long-time frontrunner is artisan gelato-maker Capogiro, with a popular outpost on Rittenhouse Square and several other locations across the city. Exotic flavours like nocciola Piemonte (hazelnut) and melograno (pomegranate) evoke the Mediterranean, but the fresh, hormone-free milk is a proud product of Pennsylvania Dutch Country.
Baked twists of buttery dough, topped with mustard and served on wax paper is another product of the improbable marriage between Italian and Amish. It is thought that seventh-century Italian monks invented the snack to reward children after prayer studies, with the recipe then spreading to Austria and Germany. Centuries later, these 'bretzels' were brought stateside by the immigrants now known as the Pennsylvania Dutch. The first American pretzel was crafted in Amish country in 1861; shortly after, Julius Sturgis founded the nation's first pretzel bakery in nearby Lititz, Pennsylvania.
Today, locals pledge their allegiance to the piping-hot pretzels from the Philly Soft Pretzel Factory , which has locations across the city. Maybe the pretzel is Amish-inspired, maybe it is an Italian thing – no one really cares when they are delving into a butter-stained brown paper bag stuffed with an oven-fresh bakers' dozen.