Sometimes the most important ingredient in great food is location. The experience of eating a cheese steak is not complete unless you’ve done it on the streets of Philadelphia.
No matter how many beef sandwiches you’ve eaten over the years, there’s nothing like the real thing in the place where it was born. Meat, bread and cheese are essential to the experience, but culture and history bring their own unique flavors.
Food and culinary experiences are more popular in America than they’ve ever been, and destinations around Pennsylvania have found ways to connect visitors to their history and culture through local food.
For group travel planners, the surge in food tourism offers numerous ways to please the wide variety of palates among their customers and to create exciting new experiences that show off areas of a city that tourists often miss.
I spent three days exploring Pennsylvania in January, uncovering some of the best culinary offerings from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh. Integrate these stops into your next Pennsylvania itinerary, and your groups are sure to have a tasty time.
All day long, a rich, savory aroma of roasted meat wafts from a stall in Reading Terminal Market. Opened in 1892, Reading Terminal Market is the oldest continuously operating farmers market in the United States, and Tommy Dinic’s is one of its most popular vendors.
Dinic’s has been serving roasted pork and beef sandwiches to the people of Philadelphia for generations and has become one of the most famous — and fragrant — businesses operating out of the market in the heart of downtown Philly. But the meat there is only the beginning of a culinary experience at Reading Terminal.
“We have all of the Philadelphia essentials, like cheesesteak and cannolis,” said Christina Cassidy, tourism communications coordinator at the Philadelphia Convention and Visitors Bureau. “You could spend a whole day eating in this market.”
Your group may not want to spend the whole day there, but a lunch stop is in order. Travel coordinators can buy gift cards for their passengers ahead of time and then turn them loose in the market to discover their own favorite Philadelphia flavors and rub elbows with locals.
It’s easy to find a full meal at one of the market’s eateries or to fill up by grazing at the specialty vendors along the way. Farmers bring in the best Pennsylvania produce, cheese and cured meats from around the region, and vendors dress them up in a variety of ethnic flavors. You’ll find authentic Amish jams, Mexican tamales, Greek gyros and Peking duck, all in the same place.
The market is just one stop for groups that want to experience the best of Philadelphia’s culinary scene. A host of friendly local restaurants in a compact area near downtown offer great on-your-own or all-together dining. Options range from McGillin’s Olde Ale House, the oldest continuously running tavern in town, to Garces Trading Company, one of seven trendy spots in the city owned by Iron Chef Jose Garces.
For a completely different and completely authentic culinary experience, groups can take a tour of South Philadelphia’s Italian Market with Taste 4 Travel. South Philly native and professional chef Jacquie Peccina-Kelly takes groups on a walking tour of the neighborhood to visit some of her favorite food purveyors.
When I visited, our tour stopped at DiBruno Bros., an authentic Italian meat and cheese purveyor, as well as a tortilla shop, a traditional Lebanese restaurant and a classical Italian pastry shop. And we couldn’t finish without trying a cheesesteak at the most famous corner in Philadelphia, where Pat’s and Geno’s go head-to-head for the neighborhood’s loyal cheesesteak customers.
“People in South Philly will brawl to defend their cheesesteak,” chef Jacquie told us as we ate.
If you ask me, though, nobody loses in a battle this tasty.
Big Macs and Big Flavors
It’s a full-fledged McDonald’s restaurant, but also much more.
On the western edge of the state, in the Laurel Highlands area outside Pittsburgh, the Big Mac Museum Restaurant pays homage to a legend in American food.
“We’re a fully functioning McDonald’s, but we’re also a museum to Jim Delligatti, who invented the Big Mac,” said Brenda Stough, marketing manager at the restaurant.
Delligatti, who owned a number of McDonald’s stores in western Pennsylvania, created the famous sandwich more than 40 years ago. The restaurant-museum combo has exhibits that detail the development of the famous sandwich as well as McDonald’s artifacts and memorabilia from throughout the company’s history. The location is also famous for having the world’s largest replica of a Big Mac sandwich, which stands 14 feet tall.
In the nearby city of Greensburg, groups can have a historic experience of a different kind at the Supper Club, a historic train station that has been converted into a farm-to-table restaurant.
The city’s train station was opened in 1911, but faced demolition in the late 20th century. Local organizations rallied to save and restore the building, and the restaurant owners have used historic seating and architectural details to create a restaurant with distinctive ambiance.
Groups can have a farm-to-table cooking class with the chef at the Supper Club, who visits three area farmers markets each week to procure ingredients. For a fully themed dining experience, groups can ride the evening Amtrak train from Philadelphia to Greensburg and have a gourmet dinner at the restaurant, which is adjacent to the modern train station.
Prosciutto in Pittsburgh
“The Strip District is the city’s historic market district. It’s gritty, but that’s not a bad thing. There are so many sights, sounds, smells and tastes.”
Sylvia McCoy led me on a culinary tour of the Strip District, a mile-and-a-half-long stretch of land between a hillside and a riverfront near downtown Pittsburgh. McCoy’s company, ’Burgh Bits and Bites, specializes in showing off the flavors of different neighborhoods around town. She’s an unabashed fan of the Strip and knows the best places to take hungry travelers.
The Strip has a long and diverse history of ethnic immigration. There are threads of Irish, Italian, German and Polish history there, and they all come out in their own culinary expressions.
Our tour began at Colangelo’s, a traditional Italian bakery, and then continued to Enrico Biscotti, an artisan bakery known for sweet and tender almond macaroons. Things turned more savory at Pittsburgh Macaroni Company, where proprietor Carol Giancola is a local legend.
“They are the oldest business here,” McCoy said. “The family has been in business for over 100 years. There are 175 cheeses on the board, and 400 behind the counter, and Carol knows every one of them.”
After sampling a few of Carol’s favorite cheeses, we tasted pepperoni roll at Sunseri’s and then visited Parma Sausage, the homemade meat mecca of Pittsburgh. Owned by another local Italian family, this company specializes in curing prosciutto, coppa seca, sopresatta, mortadella and other fine Italian meats. On a tour, visitors get a generous sampling of each of those, which may be aged for up to 20 months, as well as a glass of the family’s homemade wine.
For groups with a taste for culinary travel, a Bits and Bites tour makes a perfect way to experience a part of Pittsburgh that most travelers rarely get a chance to appreciate. After trying them all, I can tell you firsthand, mixing Pennsylvania’s food experiences into your next tour is a guaranteed recipe for success.