Behind the Line With Frank E. Olivieri of Pat’s King of Steaks
Owner of the South Philly mainstay talks raw onions, how he wooed his wife, and the pools of Cheez Whiz he goes through every year.
Behind the Line is Foobooz’s interview series with the people who make up Philly’s dynamic food and beverage scene. For the complete archives, go here.
If you’re reading this, you’ve probably been to Pat’s King of Steaks a couple of times. Since 1930, the story goes, Pat’s has served the original cheesesteak, first as an off-menu item at the Olivieri family’s hot-dog stand, then later as a takeout spot inside a bar, and finally in their final form at the corner of 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue as it is now. I spent a Wednesday afternoon chatting with Frank E. Olivieri, Pat Olivieri’s great nephew, about how he takes his cheesesteaks, how much Cheez Whiz he sells, and how Donald Trump ended up at his takeout window.
The cheesesteak originated from … an Abbruzzese dish that my great uncles would make when they had a little extra cash. It was like a bruschetta with a little bit of meat on it. At the time the condiments were just onions, and the bread was Italian. This was in 1930, and then the legend goes that the cheese was added by an employee named Joe Lorenzo, or Cocky Joe. It was probably provolone at the time. Cheez Whiz wasn’t created until 1956, and my dad started putting it on the sandwiches.
Pat’s current location opened … where the business is now, in the winter of 1931 or ’32. At the time, the second floor of the Pat’s building was a restaurant, and downstairs there was a bar. So Pat comes in and starts making sandwiches upstairs and bringing them down to people in the bar. People started coming in just to eat, so the bartender said “What if we cut a hole in the wall and then people can take the sandwiches to go?” And that’s how we started serving sandwiches outside.
I take my cheesesteak … inside out. If there’s scotch involved, it’s gotta be inside out, which means they take the inside of the bread out, they scoop the rolls. So, inside out, with just a little bit of meat, a little bit of salt and pepper, a little bit of Cheez Whiz, and raw onions. I like for it to be proportional.
The correct way to order a cheesesteak is … oh, how am I supposed to say it? Even I can’t keep the rules straight about ordering. I guess it’s “inside out wit raw.” They know my normal order so I don’t normally have to bother with ordering it out loud.
Our number one cheese is … Whiz. We sell enough Cheez Whiz in a year to fill an Olympic-sized swimming pool.
I wooed my wife by … sending 50 cheesesteaks to her place of work so that she’d go out with me.
On a busy Saturday we sell … at minimum 5,000 steaks. During COVID we were shipping 10,000 cheesesteaks a week out of here for Goldbelly.
Donald Trump’s recent visit came about because … The FBI stopped by a few days prior but wouldn’t give us any information. We figured it was either President Biden or a former president, but it wasn’t until the day before when we learned it was Trump from the local police. We have been serving both political parties for many decades, so we try not to let our own political leanings interfere when it comes to those we let order. I was also worried what his supporters might do if we denied him — and the safety of our staff is what matters most.