IT HAD BEEN a few years since I had tried to eat my way through a city, and I wasn't sure my stomach was still up to the task. So when I made a quick visit to Philadelphia recently I brought along an assistant eater, a teen-ager, my 15-year-old son. Traveling with a teen-ager has its drawbacks. Agreement on what radio station you listen to in the car can be difficult. But if you want an enthusiastic eater, a teen-ager is just what the demographer ordered.
Together we visited three cheese steak emporiums, Jim's, Pat's and Tom's. We stopped by Nick's, known for its roast beef sandwiches. We munched on a bag of soft pretzels fresh from the oven of Federal Pretzel. We picked up a couple of cannoli at Termini Brothers bakery, and finished off with a cup of lemon ice from Pop's Homemade Italian Ice. It was a delicious 24-hour tour. At most of these stops, I would take a few bites. The teen-ager would eat his serving, then finish off my leftovers.
We ate in South Philadelphia. Joe Italiano, 37, an owner of Pop's Homemade Ice, and lifelong resident of this section of town, gave me a rough idea of its boundaries and its distinctive character. The neighborhood, he said, runs "between the rivers," the Schuylkill and Delaware, roughly from just below downtown Philadelphia to Veterans Stadium. South Philadelphia eateries are known for being family-owned and respectful of tradition,
Italiano said. "A family gets a recipe and sticks with it," he said. The recipes he uses, for instance, to make the citrus-flavored servings of crushed ice, came from his grandfather, Fillippo Italiano.
"My greatest compliment is when somebody tells me, 'It tastes ** just like it did when I came here as a child,' " Italiano said.
One of our early eating stops was the pretzel plant at 638 Federal St. It had the look of a narrow, brick South Baltimore rowhouse. The price of the pretzels, four for $1, was family-friendly. The teen-ager and I bought 8 soft pretzels, still warm from the oven, and devoured them as we walked down the narrow streets to "cheese steak junction," where Passyunk Avenue, Wharton and Ninth streets come together.
On one corner sat Pat's King of Steaks. Across the intersection sat Geno's, a rival cheese steak house. We chose Pat's, for no particular reason. We ordered our cheese steak, sat at an outside table, and took in the passing scene.
Ordering a cheese steak is a quick, concise, impersonal transaction. You specify the color of the cheese and anything else you want to accompany the thin slices of grilled meat. If you try to take a shortcut and ask for "everything" as my son had done the night before at Jim's Steaks, at Fourth and South streets, you can end up with ketchup and onions on your cheese steak.
I liked the ambience at Pat's. As I sat outside, a guy driving a motorcycle thundered past. Across the street at the playground, two guys were playing a rugged game of playground basketball. Overhead, pairs of old basketball shoes dangled from telephone lines. In this neighborhood, when a basketball player's favorite pair of shoes wears out, he tosses them on the telephone line. This, I was told, is the player's way of saluting a good pair of shoes. Sitting outside Pat's with the sneakers dangling above me, and a cheese steak in front of me, I felt like I was experiencing the real Philadelphia.
Next we walked to Termini Brothers bakery at 1523 South 8th St. A few of the neighborhood residents were sitting on the steps outside their homes, and a few were speaking Italian. The scene reminded me of Baltimore's Little Italy. The cannoli, baked pastry shells filled with ricotta cheese, also reminded me of Little Italy. They were sweet, but not overwhelming.
A lady at the bakery gave me directions to Nick's, officially known as Old Original Nick's Roast Beef, at 20th and Jackson streets. "You'll know you are there," I was told, "when you see all the cars double parked, with signs in their windshield saying 'Gone for Roast Beef.' " Trying to behave like a native, I made f fTC sign to put in the windshield of my car. I didn't have to use it. I slipped into a space right in front of the tavern. I walked in and ordered sandwiches to go.
This was not a cheese steak. It was roast beef, steamship round, sliced immediately before serving and delivered on a firm roll. It was roast-beef heaven.
Before heading back to Baltimore, we made one more stop. I got a small cup of lemon ice at Pop's 1337 Oregon. The teen-ager, however, still had room in his stomach. He walked up to Tom's Oregon Steaks, next door to Pop's, and ordered a cheese steak, with Cheez Whiz. A cheese steak for the road. He ended up rating the Jim's cheese steak slightly superior to Pat's, with Tom's a close third. My favorite sandwich of the venture was the roast beef at Nick's. When we got home that evening I didn't think I could eat again for a week. The teen-ager had returned to his natural state. He was hungry.
Pub Date: 5/01/96