For years, all one Philadelphian had to say to others was, “Meet me at the eagle,” and everyone knew what he meant. The structure is also home to another St. Louis World’s Fair antique, the world’s largest operational pipe organ, originally built with 10,000 pipes and today boasting more than 28,000. It is played twice daily and is the major feature of the multi-glittering Christmas Light Show, narrated by Julie Andrews.
What about the famed Philly cheese steak? We heard a chorus of clinking spatulas as we stepped inside Zio’s Brickoven Pizza at 111 South 13th St., as well known for their cheese steaks as their pizza. We had a choice of ours with or without onions and all but two of our group of about a dozen, myself being one, ordered onions. The story of the cheese steak sandwich goes like this. Around 1930, a local hot dog vendor named Pat Oliverieri substituted strips of steak in a bun when he became tired of eating hot dogs for lunch every day. A cab driver passing by picked one up and before long, word of mouth served as the best advertiser.
Oliverieri’s steak sandwiches were gobbled up by locals, although amazingly it took 20 years until an entrepreneur added cheese to the concoction. The most common cheeses over the years have been American, provolone and Cheez Whiz. In fact, Cheez Whiz is the most popular topping. No one said it was a gourmet meal.
Let’s not forget dessert. Our last stop was the Reading Terminal Market, frequented by visitors as much as locals. Most emporia here are mom and pop operations, many run by Amish who rise around 4 a.m. to be here at the 8 a.m. opening (9 a.m. on Sunday). Only 20 percent of the food sold here is allowed to be processed. Our two stops took us to Chocolate by Mueller, where we were treated with chocolate covered pretzels, but also where chocolate goodies come in eclectic shapes, including human body parts: “I thought you said a dozen noses,” accompanies chocolate-shaped noses; “You take my breath away” is the message that comes with chocolate shaped lungs. We finished off our epicurean repast with double dipped chocolate cake truffles at the Flying Monkey Bakery.
So come to Philly, enjoy the local cuisine, but keep your restraint at home.
IF YOU GO
The Flavors of Philly tour is offered daily, 1:30 p.m. to 4. Prices: $39 per adult, $29 ages 10-14, not including gratuity; the tour is too fatiguing for most children under 10. Other specialized tours, offered less frequently, include one devoted to beer and cheese and another to ethnic foods of south Philadelphia. Reservations are mandatory and can be made at zerve.com or by calling (800) 979-3370. Depending on the tour, expect 10 to 30 minutes total walking (a half mile to one and a half miles). There are several stops along the way, and on the Flavors of Philly tour the longest walking stretch lasts about 15 minutes. Some places are wheelchair accessible; for those that are not, the guides will make necessary accommodations. Private tours are offered as well. Information: www.cityfoodtours.com
Downtown lodging: Loew’s Philadelphia Hotel, 1200 Market St., (215) 627-1200, doubles: $159-$299 www.loewshotels.com/philadelphia; Best Western Center City Hotel, 501 North 22nd St., (215) 568-8300, doubles: $99-$199 www.bestwestern.com; Thomas Bond House (12-room bed and breakfast), 129 South 2nd St., (215) 923-8523, rooms: $125-$190, breakfast included, continental on weekdays, full Saturday and Sunday, www.thomasbondhousebandb.com.
Michael Schuman graduated cum laude from Syracuse University in 1975 and received an MFA in professional writing in 1977 from the University of Southern California. He lives with his family in New England and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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