Italian Market shops plus Geno’s & Pat’s in South Philadelphia

Philadelphia’s Italian Market, or 9th Street, is a large outdoor area of grocery stores, restaurants, cafes, butchers, bakers, and cheese vendors extending from Fitzwater to Wharton Street in South Philadelphia. The area was not a part of William Penn’s original plan for the city, and the first Italian immigrants arrived and moved into Antonio Palumbo’s boarding house. Many vendors in the Market can trace their beginnings to these families, and today, there are over 100 merchants at 9th Street. Along with familiar names such as DiBruno Brothers House of Cheese, Esposito’s Meats, Grassia’s Italian Market Spice Company, Talluto’s Pasta and Cheese, and Michael Anastasio Produce, there are Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese, and Mexican shop owners. Vendors are open year round, from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., and generally closed on Mondays.

Shoppers are attracted to the extensive variety of fresh fish, produce, charcuterie meats, and imported and domestic cheese, all artfully displayed and sheltered beneath overhanging brightly colored awnings along the street. During the winter, proprietors set up burn barrels, typical of most large cities, to provide warmth for their customers. Some owners live in the ground floor shops of the Philadelphia townhouses, much the same as they did years ago. Urban renewal has brought in more cafes, gift stores, and gourmet shops to the traditional displays of the Italian Market. Visitors and residents of Philadelphia flock to the Market to eat, shop, and buy, everything from vegetables, fruit, and spices to housewares, coffees, and caviar. Many restaurant owners in the city purchase much of their fresh produce, pasta, and specialty items from the numerous vendors, as well.

The neighborhood between South Street and Steakland, where cheesesteak was invented, has long been considered a part of the Italian Market. Cheesesteak, a Philadelphia tradition invented in 1930, plays an important part in their culture. It consists of thin layers of beef, grilled and topped with some type of cheese. Provolone, American, or Cheez Whiz, and peppers, onions, and mushrooms are often added. Served in a long Italian roll, or hoagie, Philadelphians only use rolls made by Amoroso’s Baking Company and firmly believe that their drinking water, known as Schuylkill punch, gives them a distinctive texture.

Pat’s and Geno’s, the two rival restaurants located across the street from each other at 9th and Passyunk Avenue in south Philly, dominate the world of cheesesteaks. Both stay open 24 hours a day and are popular for after sports events or when the bars close at 2:00 a.m. Pat Olivieri of Pat’s King of Steaks began the cheesesteak business from a hot dog stand near the Italian Market. He decided one day to grill some meat for lunch instead of the usual hot dog; the aroma caught the attention of a passing taxi cab driver, and cheesesteak was born. Pat quickly replaced the hot dog business when he and his brother Harry opened their restaurant, Pat’s King of Steaks, at 1237 East Passyunk Avenue in 1930. First prepared as a steak sandwich only, cheese was later added to tempt more customers, and in 1952 Cheez Whiz was introduced as an alternative to American or Provolone. While the rest of Philadelphia uses rolls from Amoroso’s, Pat’s are made by the Vilotti-Pisanelli bakery. The walls of the restaurant are covered with photos of celebrities who have eaten here including Bill Clinton, Jimmy Durante, Joey Bishop, John McCain, and Connie Stevens.

Joey Vento opened Geno’s in 1966, with $6, two packages of steaks, and a few hot dogs. He is openly critical of his competition, Frank Olivieri, the nephew of Pat, and still insists that Geno’s was the first to use cheese. The restaurant is highly visible with large neon signs at 1219 South 9th Street and outdoor tables with canopies. Since Joe’s place was already taken as a name for his restaurant, he improvised from Gino’s to Geno’s. There is no indoor seating, but the walls, roof, and interior are covered with celebrities’ photos and other memorabilia of its customers. The menu features cheesesteak with a choice of three cheeses, American, Provolone, and Cheez Whiz, and other toppings, if desired. His son Geno helps run the family business and the restaurant was awarded the best of Philly takeout in 2000. The branch at Citizens Bank Park opened in 2004, but closed after two years, and is now the location for Rick’s Steaks, operated by Rick Olivieri, grandson of Pat.

The rivalry continues, and who’s to say whether Pat’s or Geno’s first introduced Cheez Whiz, or who serves the best cheesesteak in the city. Pat’s offers a few more items on their menu, but the reasonable prices and excellent food at both places are comparable. It seems, however, there is a specific way to order a Philly cheesesteak. The lines move quickly at both places, and if you’d rather not be considered a tourist while in south Philly, order a Whiz-wit or a Whiz wit-out, meaning Cheez Whiz with onions, or without.

The annual Italian Market Festival attracts visitors to the local music, food, and activities. There are activities for everyone from sampling world-famous Sorrento Cheese at 9th and Christian Street, watching the cheese competition, taking photographs with the vendors, or enjoying the pet parade. Dance groups perform on the Community Stage, local chefs feature their specialties at the Italian Market Stage at 9th and Montrose, and the kids are kept amused on the Capitolo Playground at 9th and Federal.

Featured in the film Rocky, the Italian Market is the oldest and largest working outdoor marketplace in the U.S., dating back to the 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a must-see attraction when in Philadelphia. Weekdays are best; strollers and wheelchairs welcome. Bring a large bag for your purchases; some stores sell coolers to store your perishables in while shopping.

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