Reporting from Philadelphia --
The movies’ Rocky Balboa may be Philadelphia’s most celebrated fighter, but this city’s greatest rivalry is between two South Philly cheese-steak joints that may rival the Liberty Bell for iconic status: Pat’s and Geno’s.
Lots of places have signature foods: Chicago has deep-dish pizza, New England has clam chowder, Buffalo, N.Y., has hot wings, Maryland has crab cakes and New Orleans has gumbo.
But in Philadelphia, the cheese steak stands as equal parts civic symbol, tourist attraction and cultural obsession.
And no place represents the true grit of this working-class town and speaks to the soul of the city better than the corner of 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue in South Philly, the cheese-steak epicenter where Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks face off 24 hours a day.
The triangular intersection is always abuzz with double-parked cars, idling airport shuttles and stretch limousines discharging desperate passengers on a pilgrimage to find the world’s best Philly cheese steak. Brides show up in wedding gowns. Celebrities beg to work the grill. And presidents and White House contenders pose for of-the-people photo ops.
Brothers Pat and Harry Olivieri, the founders of Pat’s King of Steaks, are generally credited with inventing the city’s signature sandwich in 1930. Joey Vento opened Geno’s Steaks across the street in 1966 in a bid to take down the reigning cheese-steak champion, proclaiming: “If you want to sell cheese steak, you go to where they eat cheese steaks.”
Both places offer nearly identical sandwiches made with frizzled rib-eye steak, melted cheese and grilled onions on an Italian loaf – served fast with a City of Brotherly Love swagger and attitude bordering on rudeness.
Ordering correctly involves cracking a Philly dialect that puts a premium on linguistic economy. A cheese steak with Cheez Whiz and onions becomes “Whiz wit” (as opposed to “wit-out” onions).
“If they say, ‘May I have a cheese steak with onions,’ we know they’re not from Philadelphia,” said Frank Olivieri, son of Pat’s King of Steaks co-founder Harry Olivieri.
Back in 2004 during the presidential campaign, George Bush ordered his cheese steak “Whiz wit,” while John Kerry asked for his with Swiss cheese, a misstep that solidified Kerry’s effete reputation and made him the subject of ridicule across Philadelphia.
Newbies, tourists and cashless customers tread at their own peril should they ignore the posted “how to order” instructions at Pat’s, which end with the following admonishment: “If you make a mistake, don’t panic, just go to the back of the line and start over.”
Geno’s website offers a similar warning: “Be prepared and know how to order, because the service is fast and the line keeps moving.”
Aficionados debate differences between the two cheese steak stands that are mostly stylistic: cheese consistency, roll chewiness, meat tenderness.
Geno’s neatly wrapped sandwiches come with thinly sliced meat. Pat’s slides it’s sliced meat sandwiches across the counter wide open and unwrapped.
Geno’s recommends provolone cheese. Pat’s pushes Cheez Whiz. Even the bread comes from rival bakeries.
And while Geno’s bright orange restaurant is filled with celebrity photos and bristles with neon lights, Pat’s location has a more sedate brick exterior with fluorescent lights.
The highly publicized rivalry, now in its fourth decade, is largely a media invention stoked by the release in 1976 of “Rocky,” which features a scene with Philadelphia’s favorite fighter eating at Pat’s.
But the pitched competition and media hype have been good for business, with both sides playing along, talking trash and accusing each other of stealing secrets in an endless stream of newspaper, magazine and TV interviews.
The rivals may not even serve the best cheese steak in town, but they certainly are the best known among visitors from around the world, who beat a path to the famous intersection. Other contenders through the years for Philadelphia cheese-steak supremacy have included Jim’s Steaks on South Street, Tony Luke’s out by the stadium and Johnny’s Hots.
But in the minds of many, and especially Olivieri and Vento, there are only two cheese-steak places in Philadelphia worth bragging about.
“Pat’s makes the perfect cheese steak,” said Olivieri. “But I’ve never had another cheese steak in the state of Pennsylvania.”
“He invented the steak, I perfected it,” counters Vento, who calls himself the Ace of Steaks.
“People around here eats his steak, eats mine and they like mine better,” said Olivieri, who calls his adversary the Court Jester of Steaks. “That’s what other people say. I don’t say that.”
“I was out to be the best and I wanted to beat what they claimed was the best,” Vento said, relishing the rivalry. “And I think I did both of them things.”
During my visit to Philadelphia, like many of the other tourists buzzing around 9th and Passyunk, I ate at Pat’s and Geno’s back to back.
I found both sandwiches to be good if largely indistinguishable, but neither lived up to the iconic status that decades of hype have bestowed upon the dueling restaurants. That’s the problem with elevated expectations: They’re nearly always impossible to live up to.
But as with the Liberty Bell and the Rocky statue, I’m sure the crowds will keep flocking to Pat’s and Geno’s as long as the rivals keep pumping out cheese steaks at a breathtaking rate.