Fred’s Favorite Philly Foods
As you may know, we are not foodies. But we do like food.
Fred was especially excited about Philly food. He had a long list of cheese steak stands and sandwich shops he wanted to visit (but no Pat’s or Geno’s, which he declared too touristy). Shout-out to John’s Roast Pork, where I devoured the best cheesesteak sandwich in the world. I wished I had two. He’d found a place to grab a Philly pretzel. He’d identified some old-school Italian places where we could sit down over huge plates of homemade pasta smothered in “red gravy.”
There would be pizza, of course. There must always be pizza.
And do we even need to tell you there would beer?
Read on for more about the oldest Italian restaurant in the U.S., a pizza joint that’s in the Guinness World Book of Records, and a sandwich some call the best in America.
P.S. Sorry we’re such bad food photo takers. We’ll work on it.
First, a Word About Alcohol
Pennsylvania has some unusual alcohol laws. Finding a Philly grocery store that sells beer and wine seems nigh on impossible, but some convenience stores sell shots of liquor in little plastic cups! Ain’t no party like a bodega party… Many restaurants operate on a BYOB basis, while others will sell you a can of beer to go in a brown paper bag.
So if you plan to drink, plan ahead.
(We did find that Whole Foods sold bottles of wine, if that helps.)
Philly Loves Pretzels
Philadelphia is a pretzel town, and Philly’s pretzels are a little different than what you’ll find at your average ballpark—a little chewier, a little thinner and more elongated.
One morning, we headed to South Philadelphia to have pretzels for breakfast at Center City Soft Pretzel Co., where we bought fresh, hot to-go pretzels for less than 50 cents a piece. I’m not a mustard eater, but Fred bought some of their special bran mustard and declared it delectable. The mustard was an absolute steal. How does this place stay in business?!?
Just be sure to get there on the early side. Center City closes at 10 or 11 a.m., and we hear it sometimes runs out before then.
Ralph’s Italian Restaurant
Tens of thousands of Italians immigrated to Philadelphia in the 18th and 19th centuries, most of them settling in South Philadelphia. Many of their descendants still live in the neighborhood, which is home to the thriving 9th Street Italian Market.
In addition to fresh produce vendors, you’ll find butcher shops and bakeries, pasta purveyors and spice sellers. Not to mention record stores, knick knacks, and antiques. And, of course, lots of Italian restaurants. Once you cross a certain street to the south, the vibe becomes much more LatinX.
The oldest of these—in fact, the oldest Italian restaurant in America—is Ralph’s, which started serving customers in 1900. Now run by Ralph’s grandsons, it’s a small, unpretentious restaurant that dishes up generous portions of tasty classic dishes like veal parmigiana, penne alla vodka, and sausage and peppers.
Frank Sinatra ate here. Teddy Roosevelt. Joe Biden. Taylor Swift. Ed Sheeran. Not to mention everyone’s favorites, the Y’all Went Where duo. You’re Welcome, Ralph.
Arancini of the Gods
Elsewhere in Philadelphia, in a neighborhood called Society Hill, I had the best arancini I’d ever had in my life at a place called Pizzeria Stella. I will back her up on this. Just a perfect blend of cheese and rice, with delicious red gravy.
The wood-fired pizzas looked great, but we were just there for a midday snack.
Pizza Brain is a pizzeria that is also in the Guinness World Book of Records for having the largest collection of pizza-related items in the world.
It bills itself as the World’s First Pizza Museum.
I thought about including it in the art, history and culture story, but I ultimately decided on “food” because Pizza Brain’s huge, New York-style slices are doggone delicious. Philadelphia needs to be mentioned with the other great pizza cities of this nation. All the pizza was the doggiest-gone delicious.
While you’re waiting for your slice (or pie), you can wander its small space and wax nostalgic over its collection of pizza-themed toys. You’ll see plenty of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Dominoes’ Noids. And is that the Tasmanian Devil holding a pizza slice? A troll doll pizza chef? A Spider-Man Flip ‘n’ Trap Pizza Parlor? Yes, yes, and yes.
One wall is covered in album and cassette covers. Who knew there was so much pizza-adjacent music? Drive By Truckers gave us the “Pizza Deliverance” album; Lou Monte put together “Songs for Pizza Lovers,” and Big Bird gave us the “Pizza Polka.” And then there’s the Irving Fields Trio’s “Pizzas and Bongos.” There even seems to be a connection between pipe organs and pizza, as several albums featured organ music.
Reading Terminal Market
Warning: Walking into Reading Terminal Market may result in sensory overload. This place is packed, all the time, with locals and tourists queuing up to order food at one of its dozens of restaurant stalls.
It can be hard to worm your way through the crowds or to figure out where a line ends. And you’ll need lightning speed to snag a table.
But it will all seem worth it once you settle down to eat whatever delicious dish you’ve chosen. Thai, ribs, sushi, fried chicken, Caribbean—whatever your craving, it’s there.
Reading Terminal Market, which opened in 1893, lay beneath the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad’s train shed and tracks. (By the way, was anyone else surprised to learn in adulthood that the Monopoly game property you sometimes got to “take a ride on” was pronounced “Red-ding” Railroad, not Reading Railroad?)Soyia and I argued about this, and of course she won, but it will always be Reed-ing to me. SO THERE. Farmers hawked their wares as trains rumbled overhead. The market did booming business for decades but nearly shuttered in the late 1970s before being rescued and revitalized.
Today it’s open daily from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., but vendors keep their own hours, so if you have a specific destination in mind, check their website.
We went to Reading for lunch twice. The first time we had sandwiches from DiNic’s, which was on Fred’s Must List after seeing it named the best sandwich in America on a Food Network show. It was an incredible sandwich. INCREDIBLE.
Later that day, we returned to pick up breakfast for the next day from Beiler’s Donuts and Salads. (That’s right. Donuts and salads. I don’t think we have to tell you which we chose.)
The second time we chose Amish-made food. He had rotisserie chicken wings from Dienner’s Bar-B-Q Chicken Was very good, but I think I maybe cut in line and felt terrible about it the entire time I was eating. Seriously, Philadelphia, I DIDN’T KNOW!, and I had a ham- and cheese-filled pretzel from Miller’s Twist. (The Amish make pretzels that are soft and buttery—sort of like Auntie Anne’s, but better.)
For dessert we had a couple of Famous 4th Street Cookie Company cookies.
And then we waddled on to our next destination.
Beer! (Part 1)
We visited several breweries while we were in Philly. Our favorite was Evil Genius Beer Company in Fishtown because of its combination of good beer and large, lively indoor and outdoor seating areas.
Plus, they give their beers fun names, like “Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition,” “You’re Killing Me, Smalls!” and “These Pretzels are Making Me Thirsty.” (Their slogan is “Very Silly Names for Very Serious Beer” and you can see every name they’ve ever used here.) I had a really good hazy IPA called “Trust the Process,” which Fred explained is a Philly sports reference, and he had a Belgian table beer called “We’ve Been Trying to Reach You About Your Car’s Extended Warranty.”
They also sell food, but we were still stuffed from our second visit to the Reading Terminal Market.
Beer! (Part 2)
Finally, we have to give a shout-out to Ray’s “Happy Birthday Bar,” a South Philly institution and a dive bar nonpareil.
Opened in 1938 and originally called Ray’s Bar, its owner, Anthony “Ray” Capozzoli greeted everyone who entered with “Happy Birthday.” When he died in 1997, his son took over and added the “Happy Birthday” to honor him.
It’s dark and frill-free, with a good jukebox and friendly regulars. A perfect place to while away a couple of hours on a hot summer afternoon. Seriously, this place was the best. We got so many recommendations for food and bars from people who know their business.
|Shout-out to John’s Roast Pork, where I devoured the best cheesesteak sandwich in the world. I wished I had two.
|Ain’t no party like a bodega party…
|The mustard was an absolute steal. How does this place stay in business?!?
|Not to mention record stores, knick knacks, and antiques.
|Once you cross a certain street to the south, the vibe becomes much more LatinX.
|You’re Welcome, Ralph.
|I will back her up on this.
|Philadelphia needs to be mentioned with the other great pizza cities of this nation. All the pizza was the doggiest-gone delicious.
|Soyia and I argued about this, and of course she won, but it will always be Reed-ing to me. SO THERE.
|It was an incredible sandwich. INCREDIBLE.
|Was very good, but I think I maybe cut in line and felt terrible about it the entire time I was eating. Seriously, Philadelphia, I DIDN’T KNOW!
|Seriously, this place was the best. We got so many recommendations for food and bars from people who know their business.