Frank Olivieri Jr., 46, shovels sizzling slabs of thinly sliced beef from his flat-top grill into a freshly sliced Italian torpedo roll, piles on glistening fried onions and tops with a wide ribbon of gooey yellow Cheez Whiz.
The ingredients of a Philly cheesesteak aren’t fancy, nor is the white clapboard shack known as Pat’s King of Steaks in Philadelphia, where the sandwich originated and where Olivieri continues a family tradition. Their blue-collar familiarity and unpretentiousness, along with the sandwich’s distinctive smell and taste, may well have made the cheesesteak Philadelphia’s second greatest contribution to American culture—after democracy.
No one knows how to build a cheesesteak better than Olivieri, whose late great-uncle Pat created the sandwich in 1930 on the same triangular traffic island where Pat’s King of Steaks sits today in South Philadelphia.
“We use the best, freshest ingredients available,” says Olivieri, explaining the eatery’s steady line of customers. “And there’s always a family member or someone else who’s worked here at least 20 years, so those ingredients are always put together in exactly the same way.”
Pat Olivieri started out selling hot dogs at his lunch stand, but growing weary of the same foods, asked a local butcher for thinly sliced meat that he could brown on his hot dog grill and place in a roll. “Just then a cab driver came by, a regular, who saw Pat’s sandwich and asked for half. He liked it so much that Uncle Pat decided to add it to his menu,” Frank recounts.
A showman as well as a grill chef, Pat began bringing free cheesesteaks to well-known entertainers performing at local nightclubs and theaters, convincing Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy Durante, Louis Armstrong and other stars to pose with the sandwich for photographs that still decorate his family’s stand. His savvy marketing complemented culinary experimentation to make the cheesesteak Philadelphia’s signature sandwich.
Among its fans is Ed Monaghan, 35, of Bensalem, Pa., stopping at Pat’s for a cheesesteak on his way to a Philadelphia Phillies’ baseball game. “This is the first place I came when I got my driver’s license,” recalls Monaghan, whose visits increased to twice a week during his college years. “Eating at Pat’s is a Philly thing, almost as big as the Liberty Bell.”
The making of an American meal
The cheesesteak is a classic example of how a locally concocted combination of bread, meat and condiments can become part of a city’s identity and culture—showing off a community’s creativity, and even serving as a culinary ambassador to the nation and the world.
Consider the Rueben in New York, the Cuban in Florida and the pasty in Michigan.
The sandwich was not born in the United States, however. The creation may date as far back as the first bread made from processed grains and took its name from England’s John Montagu, the Earl of Sandwich, an 18th-century politician and soldier fond of ordering his valet to bring meat tucked between two slices of bread.
Even so, Americans have embraced the sandwich as their own—and eat an average of 214 annually per person, according to researchers on consumer trends.
“Sandwiches are to Americans what pasta is to Italians or what tortillas are to Mexicans,” says Becky Mercuri, author of American Sandwich: Great Eats From All 50 States. In fact, the sandwich is the nation’s most popular meal both for lunch and dinner—a perfect fit, she says, for Americans’ fast pace and casual style.
While all sandwiches have their local champions and unique stories, a few like the Philly cheesesteak still are made in the very places where they originally were created.
Louisville’s hot brown
For 84 years, restaurant patrons at the Brown Hotel in downtown Louisville, Ky., have used a fork and knife to eat their hot browns—a messy turkey and cheese combo so popular that the sandwich has become a standard in restaurants across Kentucky.
The hot brown was invented in 1926 by hotel chef Fred Schmidt as a way to satisfy some of the 1,200 people who attended nightly dinner dances at the luxury hotel. By 1 or 2 a.m., some dancers would wander into the hotel restaurant for an early breakfast. Tired of turning out so many plates of ham and eggs, Schmidt came up with an open-faced turkey sandwich smothered in cheese and topped with tomato and bacon.
“It’s a comfort food, which is often just what travelers need,” explains Laurent Géroli, 39, the hotel’s executive chef. “It’s not something you look at and wonder if you’re going to like.”
While today’s menu at the hotel’s English Grill is dominated by dishes such as grouper with eggplant caviar and salmon with blackberry gastrique, the legendary hot brown remains a best-seller. Between its formal dining space and a bistro-style café, the hotel serves at least 200 old-fashioned hot browns each week from a recipe that Géroli boasts none can beat.
“The secret is the sauce,” he says. “A lot of people think it’s just a cream sauce. But it’s really a Mornay”—a fancy French cheese sauce befitting the dish’s upscale hotel restaurant home.
New Orleans’ muffuletta
Creole and Cajun may be the most popular and celebrated French-influenced cuisines in New Orleans, but Italians from Sicily contributed their own culinary legacy—served on a circular loaf of bread—to the Big Easy.
Arriving in large numbers in the late 1890s, many Italians found jobs as food vendors in the French Quarter. Among them was Lupo Salvadore, who opened his now-famous Central Grocery store on Decatur Street in the city’s oldest neighborhood. Salvadore is credited with creating the muffuletta by combining Genoa salami, mortadella (sausage), ham, cheese, a chopped olive dressing and the sandwich’s namesake muffin-shaped Italian bread.
“It’s meant to be served cold,” insists Larry Tusa, 59, who co-owns Central Grocery with his brother, Frank, and their cousin Sal, Salvadore’s grandson. Tusa says the sandwich’s cool temperature and a spicy olive spread make the muffuletta ideally suited to New Orleans’ hot climate and a penchant by locals for bold and zesty food.
At Central Grocery, Salvadore’s descendants make the sandwich’s 40-ingredient dressing fresh every day—an instinctive chore that “we can do with our eyes closed,” Tusa says.
While the old-fashioned Italian grocery sells pastas, canned mushrooms, sardines and the like, muffulettas are its claim to fame. “We’ve only ever made one sandwich here. Your choices are whole or half. And the only thing that’s changed is the price,” Tusa says of the $12.95 sandwich, which feeds two people and sold for $1.95 in the late 1950s.
“The tradition continues!” Tusa says of another great American sandwich.