Is There Such a Thing as 'Philadelphia Cuisine'?
Fork chef John Patterson reflects on what it means to cook and eat in the City of Brotherly Love
Most American cities have strong associations with certain food items, many of them sandwiches. In Chicago, there's Italian beef, and that pickle-accented hot dog. In New Orleans, you can expect muffalettas and po'boys. In Philadelphia, the cheesesteak looms large, having established itself as one of the city's most important (and contentious) cultural artifacts. The City of Brotherly Love, perhaps even more so than other places, is a sandwich town. The gravy-laden Italian roast pork sandwiches, stuffed with bitter broccoli rabe and sharp pecorino, are revered by locals, perhaps even more so than its more-famous cousin, and the Italian hoagies you find in South Philly and surrounding suburbs are otherworldly, served on sesame seed-studded Sarcone's rolls, the spicy cured meats doused in olive oil and tempered with shredded lettuce, tomato and onion. But could you say there's a Philadelphia cuisine, a type of cooking unique to this city?
It's a broad question, but one that John Patterson, the executive chef at Fork in Philadelphia's Old City, takes seriously. Patterson serves what seems to be one of the closer approximiations to a coherent, albeit elevated Philadelphia gastronomy. The process begins, of course, with sourcing products of the place. Fork's lamb carpaccio, plated with sauer kohlrabi, maitake, mushrooms and hazelnuts, may not scream "Philadelphia" as loudly as a squishy soft pretzel, but every component showcases the place's terroir, for lack of a better word.
The mushrooms on the plate, flash-fried to be both crispy and chewy, come from Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, an hour's drive outside of the city and the mushroom capital of the world, and the lamb is sourced from Elysian Fields in Greene County. In terms of preparation, the tangy sauer kohlrabi feels like a nod to Pennsylvania Dutch cooking.
"It's still evolving, but I think Philadelpia food is what you grew up with," Patterson says. "So there’s a really strong Italian American heritage. I grew up eating casseroles and different takes on Pennsylvania Dutch, because my great grandmother settled in Allentown. So even though we weren’t Pennsylvania Dutch, that was our community."
Then take the menu's buttery, briny oysters from Cape May, one of the city's preferred shore hangouts, and saffron fazzoletti, a refined ode to the fresh pasta many locals grew up eating, and you can't shake the feeling of being exactly here. "Philadelphia has this really unique locale," the chef says. "We’re so close to Lancaster and Bucks and Chester Counties—which are so fertile in terms of agriculture – and right across the bridge from New Jersey, the Garden State. There’s really a plethora of options."
Whether you seek out a meal as refined as Fork—or instead opt for meatballs with gravy at the Italian Market's Villa Di Roma, or black pepper-spiced beef cubes at Vietnamese staple Nam Phuong, or an apple dumpling at the Reading Terminal Market—the stories carry the meal. Always. And with shifting demographics, leading to the influx of magnificent Mexican and Vietnamese restaurants in South Philadelphia, there are so many more stories being told.
"Philadelphia has this immense sense of pride," Patterson says. "You see who we are and where we're coming from through the menus, the restaurants, the concepts. It's something that we’re always trying to do at Fork. What you find in Philadelphia is that the food has a story."
But don't get us wrong: Quality sandwiches are still a large part of what Philadelphia is all about. (I can say this confidently as someone born and raised in the city.) Even Patterson can't help but gush about Primo Hoagies, one of the area's most beloved sandwich franchises. It's an everyday spot that is somehow always transcendent.
"We're located right next to a Primo Hoagies, it's awesome," he says. "It's originally from Jersey, but I always think of it as Philadelphia, because they use those Sarcone rolls." Sarcone's, a fifth-generation Italian bakery in South Philly, is an iconic stop in the Italian Market. (They supply the rolls for John's Roast Pork, arguably the best sandwich stop in the city.)
With the an Eagles Super Bowl approaching, Philadelphia pride is sure to reach an all-time high, and that can only mean good things for eating. The town has already produced a doughnut modeled after those Crisco-greased poles from the playoff game. In anticipation of February 4, we suggest you put in your cheesesteak order now.