Exploring Philadelphia’s Culinary History
Philadelphia is one of the most historic cities in America. Most first time visitors go to the usual sites like Independence Hall and stand in line for half an hour or more to see the Liberty Bell, before walking through Independence Park and Reading Terminal Market. Maybe they visit Valley Forge National Park. However, a walking tour is one of the best ways to experience this city.
I had been there five times previously, visiting the regular attractions and walking the city. This time, I wanted to go deep into Philly’s history and find some new food hot spots.
My base at the Windsor Suites Hotel put me right near Philadelphia’s epicenter and its major sites – City Hall, Drexel College’s Academy of Natural Sciences, The Franklin Institute, The Barnes Foundation, Chestnut Street, Market Street and more attractions.
However, the plan to get to know Philly better was to pass on these usual attractions and head into the neighborhoods. When William Penn laid out the city plan for Philadelphia, he was one of the first to use the grid pattern now common in North America. The grid design makes Philly easy to walk and find addresses.
My wife joined me the next day, and we took the City Food Tours “Flavors of Philly” option. This 2-1/2 hour tour took us in and around Philly’s core. Our plan was to try the famous tomato pie, soft pretzels, cheesesteak, cookies, and donuts before ending up at Reading Terminal Market.
We met our guide Judy, a fourth generation Philly native, and lined up for the briefing along with 11 other ready and hungry souls.
Our first stop was Joe’s Pizza for tomato pie, which is somewhat like pizza, except this pie has no cheese; it’s just dough and sauce. The owner – Zio Toto – had left Sicily after an earthquake destroyed his farm where he grew San Marzano tomatoes. Zio packed up his family and moved to the U.S. instead of rebuilding in the shadow of the destructive Mt. Etna and the earthquakes it spawns.
Joe’s Pizza is where we found Mr. Toto’s son, Ernesto, carrying on the tradition. Even though he is around 90 years old, he still comes in every day and makes this delicious red sauce from San Marzano tomatoes. Our group went upstairs to hear the story of the disputed origins of the tomato pie. Some say Trenton, New Jersey or Utica, New York are the home of the saucy red pie. Who cares? I just wanted to taste this regional treat and hear the story.
Upstairs we saw a gorgeous wall-to-wall mural of the owner’s home in Sicily showing the fertile green landscape and the menacing volcano that ushered his family to Pennsylvania. Our pie arrived and we devoured it. All agreed it was a great tasting, low-calorie version of pizza.
On our way downstairs, 1 noticed Mr. Toto and asked if I could take his photo before leaving. I told him how good the pie was, even though he doesn’t speak much English, and thanked him. We then sped off to join the group on the way to the Philly Pretzel Factory.
Here we learned that Pennsylvania makes 80 percent of the pretzels in the U.S. We were given a hot pretzel each and led to the mustard station. There was regular “ballpark” mustard, spicy brown, and very hot mustard to paint on our pretzels. I passed on the boring ballpark mustard and tried the very hot variety plus a bit of the spicy brown just for good measure. While the pretzels were tasty, I thought they needed a beer to make the most of the experience.