The local rag ran an article today about what universities in the Philly area are doing to introduce students from out of town to life in Philadelaphia. Apparently, two of the three indigenous foodstuffs played a big role in this: soft pretzels with mustard and cheesesteaks (the third, scrapple, was noticeably missing from the festivities).
And, indeed, one of the true pleasures of living in the greater Philadelphia Co-Prosperity Sphere is the cheesesteak sandwich. Those who have not had one have missed a unique gourmet–well, gourmand–pleasure.
If you are interested in trying one, remember this: if you are in a restaurant more than 35 miles from the statue of William Penn on Philadelphia City Hall and reading a menu that refers to a “cheesesteak,” be skeptical; if the menu says “Philadelphia cheesesteak,” be prepared to file a consumer complaint for fraud, because the odds are that it is not cheese, nor steak, nor Philadelphia.
Not long ago I was down home in Virginia in a little locally-owned sandwich shop that advertised a “Philly Cheesesteak” with Swiss cheese. Now, Pat Oliveri, who invented the cheesesteak was not Swiss. He was an Italian from South Philly. Provolone is Italian; Mozzarell’ is Italian; Swiss is–well, it’s not Italian.
The “Cheese” refers to real cheese, Italian cheese.
Oh, yeah, and sometimes you see these pseudo-cheesesteaks made with “Cheez Whiz.” Cheez Whiz is not cheese. It’s “pasteurized process cheese spread.” Whatever that is, it’s not cheese, hence it does not make the cut for cheesesteaks. And the cheese goes above the bread and below the meat, not on top of everything. (Although, when mixed with the right proportion of dry sherry, as I watched the barkeep do in the Lobby Bar at the Algonquin Hotel once, Cheez Whiz becomes quite a nice treat to spread on crackers.)
The “steak” refers to steak, thinly sliced. Ground beef is not steak. “Steak-ums” are not steak. (I searched the web and could not find any recent references to “Steak-ums”–maybe they have attained the oblivion they deserved).
And the bread–crusty Italian bread. Bread that won’t sog or leak when loaded with that succulent mixture of cheese and steak.
Canonical toppings include sauteed mushrooms or sauteed onions, but not both together. Mixing them is not canonical.
Cheesesteaks do not have spaghetti sauce on them. They may have pizza sauce, in which case they become “pizza steaks.”
They do not have fresh lettuce, tomatoes, and onions on them. That’s a Cheesesteak hoagie.
If you put catsup or mustard on them, the cook will laugh at you when you leave the steak shop.
If the Cheesesteak is properly prepared, it needs no further adornment than the basic ingredients. It is a feast by itself.
I have heard rumors of acceptable Cheesesteaks in Phoenix and Jacksonville. In both cases, the proprietors of the steak shops are said to be transplanted Philadelphians who have their bread flown in daily from the Amoroso Baking Company.