If you have never eaten a cheesesteak sandwich in Philadelphia proper, you've never eaten a cheesesteak. Like the soft pretzel, the iconic Philly cheesesteak just tastes better in The City of Brotherly Love. Whether you're standing outside on a sticky-hot sidewalk next to a street vendor in Summer, or, standing inside against a counter in a sweaty-windowed sandwich shop in Winter, the experience, on several levels, cannot be duplicated elsewhere. Many have tried, many have come remarkably close, but everyone agrees: Philadelphia owns this sandwich.
A bit about the Philadelphia Cheesesteak: Back in the 1930's, Philadelphians Pat and Harry Olivieri, at their hot dog stand near South Philly's Italian market, invented this beloved sandwich of chopped steak piled high on a hoagie roll. The sandwich became so popular, Pat opened up a restaurant of his own, Pat's King of Steaks, which still operates today. Olivieri claims that shortly thereafter, provolone cheese was added by the manager, "Cocky Joe" Lorenza. Cheez Whiz, first marketed in 1952, was not available in the early versions of the cheesesteak sandwich, but it's now a common option, and, at Pat's, it is considered the "topping of choice". Directly across the street from Pat's King of Steaks is Geno's Steaks. Only in Philadelphis could two businesses located directly across the street from each other stay open all day and all night selling cheesesteaks and thrive.
Located on Passyunk Avenue near Ninth Street (in the heart of South Philly), their pleasant, humorously-boastful friendly-rivalry has brought well-deserved national-acclaim (and lots of celebrities and tourists) to both establishments. That said, Jim's Steaks, at 4th and South Street, is a longtime favorite of locals (and me), so, I thought I'd name drop that one too!
Trivia: Eating a cheesesteak at midnight is a Philly tradition!
The Philly cheesesteak experience is more than just eating chopped steak with melted cheese on a roll. These sandwiches, an Italian-American invention, are a civic icon -- a cultural obsession. They're portable, real-deal fast-food, and, they're available in cafes, steak shops, delicatessens and pizzerias, as well as food trucks or street vendors, throughout the city and suburbs. These are the standard upon which all others are judged, so, no matter where you are right now, if you are in search of the perfect Philly-style cheesesteak (even in Philadelphia they vary a bit from vendor to vendor), here are a few cheesy things you seriously need to know:
#1. The meat. This is not frozen Steak-Ums. A Philly cheesesteak is always made with high-quality, nicely-marbled, thinly-sliced, rib-eye steak. For example: this rib-eye would be cut lengthwise into 4-5 thin steaks. The sliced meat is cooked rather quickly on a large lightly-greased flat-top griddle. As the meat cooks it gets rough chopped into chunks and pieces.
#2. The options. Each sandwich is made-to-order. You decide what you want on yours (options vary amongst vendors): sauted onions, peppers and/or mushrooms; American, provolone or Cheez Whiz, and; "steak sauce", which in Philly lingo means a tomato product similar to pizza sauce.
#2. The roll. In Philadelphia, cheesesteaks are placed on an Amoroso or Italian Vilotti-Pisanelli roll, with the Amoroso being the most famous (and my favorite). They are long, 10"-12", thinnish and medium-textured -- neither fluffy nor soft, and decidedly not hard. But, outside of Philly, they are hard to find. Thankfully, I have a source.
#3. The etiquette of eating. When properly prepared, a cheesesteak artfully balances flavor with texture and "drip factor". Yes, if it ain't dripping juices, it ain't a Philly cheesesteak. In order to avoid ruining their clothing, Philadelphians have develped a technique affectionately referred to as the "Philadelphia Lean". This involves standing and bending forward -- essentially you take your mouth to the sandwich instead of bringing the sandwich to your mouth.
#5. The etiquette of ordering. This takes a little bit of practice, so I'll start with just a few words of advice: know what you want before you walk up to the counter to order. Philadelphians detest standing in line behind someone who hasn't decided their cheesesteak fate before talking to the cashier. Locals basically have this practice down to three precise words. For example: one American with, or, two Whiz without, means that you want one cheesesteak with American cheese and onions, or, two cheesesteaks with Cheese Whiz and no onions.
When properly prepared you can taste & feel the brotherly love!
My intention today is to show you a method for making really, really good cheesesteaks at home on your stovetop -- and not just one or two either. I don't know about you, but, when I'm making these, I either have a crowd around me and/or I want enough cheesesteak filling for leftovers the next day. Also, I'm making them the way I like them -- I'm not telling you how you should like them. My instructions include onions, peppers and mushrooms -- feel free to use some of them or none of them. My instructions include "steak sauce" (pizza-type sauce) too -- use it or don't!
~ Step 1. This really isn't a step for you, it is a step for your butcher. Explain to him that you are making cheesesteaks and ask him to cut the rib-eye steaks to a thickness of slightly less than 1/4". Plan on needing 3-4 of these thin steaks per sandwich. Once you get them home, refrigerate the steaks until well-chilled 1-2 hours.
Note: My suggestion is to plan on 4 per sandwich if you are not adding any of the optional vegetables, and, 3 per sandwich if you are adding the vegetables.
~ Step 2. Stack the cold rib-eyes (I do this four at a time), and, using a razor sharp knife, slice them into 1/2" strips. Do not saw the meat (which will cause it to rip, tear and shred), slice the meat.
Note: I refrigerate the steaks because experience has taught me they are easier to slice if they are cold. There's more. Because I am preparing these on my stovetop, not a flat-top griddle, chopping them into chunks and pieces after the fact does not work well for me.
24 thin rib-eye steaks, slightly less than 1/4" each, sliced into 1/2" strips
4 tablespoons olive oil
4 tablespoons salted butter
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 1/2 pounds very thinly-sliced yellow or sweet onion
1 pound stemmed, cleaned and thinly-sliced white button mushroom caps
12 ounces green bell pepper, cut into 1/4" julienne, julienne strips cut in half
12 ounces red bell pepper, cut into 1/4" julienne, julienne strips cut in half
freshly ground sea salt and peppercorn blend
3 cups marinara sauce, preferably homemade, or your favorite brand
1/2 teaspoon peperoncino (red pepper flakes), more or less, for stirring into sauce
cheeses of choice: provolone or Cheez Whiz
12 10"-12" long Italian rolls, the best available, toasted or untoasted, your choice
~ Step 3. Prep some or all of the optional vegetables as directed, placing them in a large food storage bag as you work. Close the bag and toss them all together. Tossing them together in the bag make it easier to stir them evenly into the cooking meat.
Note: This is a task I usually do several hours in advance, sometimes even a day ahead of making the sandwiches.
~ Step 5. Place meat in pan and season the top of it moderately with salt and liberally with peppercorn blend. Increase heat to medium-high and saute, stirring until steak is cooked through, about 12-15 minutes.
~ Step 6. Place the optional veggies over the top of the meat and lightly season their tops with more salt and peppercorn blend. Using a large spoon, thoroughly fold the seasoned vegetables into the cooking steak. Continue to saute, stirring frequently, until vegetables are very soft and only a thin layer of liquid remains in the bottom of pan, about 20-30 minutes.
~ Step 7. Stir the peperoncino into the optional "steak sauce", then stir the sauce into the cooking meat mixture. In my kitchen that is my recipe for ~ My Fresh & Spicy Tomato-Basil Sauce (Marinara) ~, which you can find in Categories 8 or 12. Adjust heat to a gentle simmer and cook for 5-10 minutes.
Note: To this point, the cheese steak filling can be made 1-3 days in advance of reheating and serving. Like many things, it actually tastes better the next day!
In Philly cheesesteak speak, here's "one Whiz with":
Special Equipment List: cutting board; chef's knife; 2-gallon food storage bag (optional); 14" chef's pan w/straight deep sides; large spoon; serrated bread knife
Cook's Note: For another one of my favorite steak sandwiches (perfect for a tailgate or Super bowl party), check out ~ My Pan-Seared Flat-Iron Steak Slider-Sandwiches ~ by clicking into Categories 2, 17, 19 or 20. These go from stovetop to table in less than 30 minutes, and that includes the time it takes to make the cheese spread too!
"We are all in this food world together." ~ Melanie Preschutti
(Recipe, Commentary and Photos courtesy of Melanie's Kitchen/2015)