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Published: Tuesday, 5/16/2006

Taste of Philadelphia: Cuisine includes historical foods and gourmet fare

BY KATHIE SMITH
BLADE FOOD EDITOR
Onions are sauteed for a classic Philadelphia Cheesesteak sandwich. Onions are sauteed for a classic Philadelphia Cheesesteak sandwich.
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PHILADELPHIA - Long known for its cheese steak sandwiches, soft pretzels, and Tastykakes pastries, Philadelphia has had a culinary rebirth in the last two decades. The rebirth began in the 1980s with a renewed interest in historic colonial food traditions, was flavored with ever-popular Pennsylvania Dutch specialties, and was developed with fine-dining French restaurants.

In the 1990s, revitalization of downtown neighborhoods spawned new restaurants, hotel renovations, ethnic dining, upscale Nuevo Latino eateries, and growth in trendy restaurants. Even "Iron Chef" Masaharu Morimoto has partnered with premier Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr at Morimoto on the edge of the historic district. (See column at left.)

Since 1985, Philadelphia's food community has been showcased each spring in "The Book and The Cook," a 10-day series of events featuring cookbook authors paired with the city's finest restaurants and chefs.

The food of Philadelphia has impacted political campaigns, inspired upscale chefs, and shaped wedding menus.

The Philadelphia Cheese Steak sandwich was created by the late Pat Olivieri in 1930 by thinly slicing steak, adding onions for taste, and putting it into a roll. In later years, cheese was added.

A savvy politician today knows that when visiting Philadelphia, ordering a Philadelphia Cheese Steak sandwich the right way is a must.

"There are only two ways to order it: with Cheez Whiz or provolone," said Rick Nichols of the Philadelphia Inquirer during a presentation at the National Chicken Council/U.S. Poultry& Egg Association Food Media Seminar in April. "John Kerry (the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee) asked for Swiss." This faux pas became a big story during the most recent presidential campaign.

In addition, the chipped steak (thin-sliced eye of the round, rib-eye, or sirloin tip roast) is served on an authentic Philadelphia roll "wit or wit-out." Translation: with or without onions.

This sandwich doesn't need red or green peppers or sauteed mushrooms. It stands on its own. While the home cook can use a box of frozen Philadelphia-style sliced steak (about $3.99 for 12 ounces), for mega flavor have your local butcher slice steak to order for just about the same price.

Last week, Dave Routson at House of Meats in The Andersons store in Maumee thinly sliced 12 ounces of prime rib for $6.89 (yielding six slices, enough for three sandwiches). Or you can buy thinly sliced sirloin tip at $3.69 a pound. Both will cook quickly for homemade cheese steak sandwiches, which are extraordinarily delicious when made with steamed Vidalia onions. (See recipe on Page 2.)

"Philadelphia has a long history of street food," including the cheese steak, falafel, and hot dogs, Mr. Nichols said. You could even categorize the soft pretzel as a grab-and-go food. Slathering soft pretzels with mustard is a Philly tradition.

When Germans migrated to Philadelphia in the 1700s, they brought their trades and customs, including the art of pretzel-making, writes Linda Stradley in I'll Have What They're Having (Three Forks, $18.95). Philadelphia Soft Pretzels have become so mainstream in America that they are sold in ball parks, movie theaters, malls, and just about any entertainment venue.

The prevalence of Pennsylvania Dutch cooking in the taste of Philadelphia is evident at the Reading Terminal Market, were vendors sell apple dumplings, chicken pot pie, cheeses, Dutch-style meat such as scrapple and ring bologna, and Cope's corn, which is a dried corn that has to be rehydrated.

"It's dried corn from Rheems, Pa.," said Mr. Nichols. "It's dried the way the Indians did. The flavor is hugely intense when rehydrated and is a Thanksgiving favorite."

Cope's Corn can also be purchased online at various sites including www.Zingermans.com, which notes that anything you make with fresh corn is fair game for Cope's dried sweet corn. Online prices range from 7.5 ounces for $3.99 at one site to $9 for a one-pound tin at Zingermans.

Once considered common Pennyslvania Dutch food, Cope's Corn is now used in gourmet dishes such as cheese flan at trendy restaurants around the country.

When Georges Perrier of Lyon, France, opened Le Bec-Fin in 1970 in Philadelphia, the city's cuisine changed forever. For more than two decades, the restaurant, which has become a Philadelphia institution, has been awarded the Mobil Five-Star rating. The six-course menu ($138) is the original French culinary experience. A three-course menu ($39) is served Monday through Thursday by reservation only. The restaurant is open for lunch at $54 per person for three courses.

Jean-Marie Lacroix created a stir during the same decade first at Four Seasons Hotel and later at The Rittenhouse Hotel. Among his signature dishes is Chicken and the Egg. It is slowly poached chicken served with a frisee lettuce salad topped with a perfectly poached four-minute egg.

Chef Susanna Foo of Susanna Foo Restaurant has put her restaurant and Chinese cooking on the fancy food map. With dishes such as Roast Chicken with Peppercorn Rub or Crispy Chicken Dumplings with Arugula Salad served with Apricot and Mustard Sauce that she prepared for a special media dinner or her signature dishes, her cuisine has been described as Asian-French.

Or consider Chef Kevin Sbraga's take on southern fried chicken. The chef de cuisine at The Grill at the Ritz-Carlton creates an appetizer-size thin waffle served with mini fried chicken coated in Panko bread crumbs served with a vodka shake flavored with a touch of maple syrup.

This only goes to prove that the food options are limitless in Philadelphia. Locals can pick and choose to their heart's content.

When Deanna Segrave-Daly married her husband, Jim, in October, 2004, the menu included grazing stations. But the couple still added a taste of Philadelphia.

They had a six-person Mummers Avalon String Band perform at the reception for about 20 minutes when the deejay took a break. The Mummers are native Philadelphians who have string bands with a 100-year tradition. They wear sequinned suits and hats and practice all year to march in the Mummer's Parade on New Year's Day.

The banjo is the Mummers' traditional instrument, but there also are others. "They play traditional polka music," Mrs. Segrave-Daly said. "They also play everything from rock and roll to country music.

"South Philadelphia is the big Italian area," said the registered dietitian with the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association who works in downtown Philadelphia. "There's an Italian market that Rocky ran through in his first movie. I made sure I had cannoli from Isgros Bakery at our dessert station at the reception."

The piece de resistance was the tiered wedding cake made with layered Tastykakes - Butterscotch Krimpets with Peanut Butter Kandykakes, which are the size of Oreo cookies and were the bride and bridegroom's favorites. The Tasty Baking Co. was founded in 1914 in Philadelphia.

When the guests left the reception, they were given bottled water and soft pretzels.

It was truly Philadelphia hospitality.

Kathie Smith is The Blade's food editor.

Contact her at: food@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



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