Forty Years Later, Are These Philly Favorites Still the Best?
1237 East Passyunk Avenue, South Philly | 215-468-1546
Then: Best Steak Sandwiches: “If the peppers are still good enough for the Mummers, then some things never change.”
Now: Actually, Pat’s didn’t just win Best Steak Sandwiches in 1974. It also won for Worst Steak Sandwiches, thanks to its ill-fated Northeast Philly location, which opened in the mid-’60s and closed in the mid-’80s. “You can take the name out of South Philly,” went that write-up. “But the quality just doesn’t travel well. Even the bread’s soggy.”
But the shop in South Philly is still serving long lines of customers, 80-some years after Pat Olivieri, great-uncle of current owner Frank Olivieri Jr., is said to have invented what we now know as the cheese-steak. And Olivieri is quick to point out—even 40 years after that Worst Of award—that the Northeast Philadelphia location was a separate entity, owned by a relative who had “split” from the family. I can still hear the good ol’ Italian grudge in his voice.
In the great Pat’s-vs.-Geno’s debate, I’ve always landed squarely on the side of Pat’s (although Tony Luke’s is my favorite steak overall). And no, it has nothing to do with the politics of late Geno’s owner Joey Vento, who made headlines more for his opinions than his sandwiches. But where neighboring Geno’s presents a sandwich with a lot of pomp and circumstance and neon and attitude, Pat’s just slides a drippy sandwich in front of you and says, “Eat up.”
Olivieri tells me the sandwich hasn’t changed a bit since 1974, other than the fact they recently switched bakeries for their chewy rolls—“But that was only because the original baker closed.” No doubt this consistency plays a major part in Pat’s longstanding success. But what else? “Hard work,” says Olivieri. “And good luck.” And the same whole hot cherry peppers—presumably what the magazine was referring to in its write-up—are still available for free to those who dare. The biggest change, I imagine, is the price. I wonder what Great-Uncle Pat would say if he knew a Pat’s cheesesteak would cost $9.50 in 2013?
I’m guessing he’d ask about royalties.