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 than punches in the “Rocky” sequel.
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, cheese steak, 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, I 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.
Into the bank
Our next stop was for gawking, not eating, as we were allowed inside Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse. Built in 1922 as the First Pennsylvania Bank, the building features soaring columns, a stunning ceiling, a 34-foot tall wine tower complete with spiral staircase and a dining room downstairs in a massive bank vault.
Because we were on the food tour, we were given a grand tour of Del Frisco’s an hour before it opened to the public. Judy pointed out the bank vault’s special wine cellar and said, “See that case of Screaming Eagle wine? That is the wine the Philadelphia Eagles tell new recruits they need to buy for the table at the team’s dinner. Each player gets a glass of the special wine. They don’t tell the new recruits the price tag is $5,500 per bottle!”
Del Frisco’s is an expensive place to eat but we found out about “happy” hour on Sunday from 5-11 p.m. when food and drink prices are a bargain.
In terms of regional food, Philadelphia is probably most famous for the cheesesteak. Our tour included this meaty, hot sandwich at Pandora’s Lunchbox on 1221 Walnut Street. Judy said, “This is where the locals go for a cheese steak sandwich; not Pat’s King of Steaks or Geno’s Steaks.”
Being a professional cook, I have made and eaten my fair share of Philly cheesesteak sandwiches. The cheesesteak at Pandora’s was excellent. The meat was cooked and seasoned just right, and the bun was a chewy, slightly crusty vehicle for launching the sub into my mouth. It was a full-sized cheesesteak, and few us were able to finish the beefy treat.
Learning on the way
Between each stop, we learned tidbits about Philadelphia including how the murals throughout the city are the result of a successful anti-graffiti law. We learned how the mid-town village area used to be unsafe until the owner of Jamonera bought up five properties in the neighborhood with a vision of turning it around. We also learned that Insomnia Cookies was started by a college student at the University of Pennsylvania.
As we gazed upon the magnificent center piece of downtown Philadelphia, City Hall, we learned it took thirty years to build, with construction finished in 1901, and was almost torn town in the 1950s. This historic building might have been demolished and hauled off. What saved it was that the expense of tearing it down and removing it proved too great. This bought City Hall more time until clearer thinking saved and restored it. We also learned about the 37-foot tall statue of William Penn (Billy) at the top of the building and the “gentlemen’s agreement” that no building should be taller than Billy.
When the skyscraper One Liberty Place exceeded the height of Billy’s head in 1987, a drought of championships for local sports teams had lasted for twenty-one years. When a small statue of Billy was put atop the soaring Comcast Center in 2007, the Philadelphia Phillies magically won the 2008 World Series 24 months later! Apparently, Billy approved of being on top of his beloved city again.
The last stop on our foodie tour took us to the Reading Terminal Market for sweet treats. Fourth Street Cookies and Beiler’s would be our final stops. Judy told us about the waiting line for Beiler’s Donuts, but seeing was believing.
The line stretched for over 60 feet and threatened to nearly wrap around to where the front of the line and back of the line would meet! These hand-rolled donuts looked and tasted good, but I couldn’t understand the crazy long line to get them.
On Sunday, my wife and I finished up our visit with brunch at Talula’s Garden in Washington Square. Talula’s Garden is one of the finest garden-themed restaurants anywhere. The farm-to-table fare is great and the vibe is chill. It was a perfect ending to eating up the best of Philly.
As we drove historic Front Street towards I-95 for the trip home, we both agreed this had been the best trip to Philadelphia yet. A walking tour, whether food-based or historical, puts you deeper into the city. This made for a richer enjoyment of the City of Brotherly Love. If you take the Flavors of Philly Tour, you’ll learn about this great city and might even go home with a bag of donuts and cookies too!
If you go
Thanks to Visit Philadelphia for hosting me and showing the best of the city.