Keystone Cravings: The Best Things to Eat in Pennsylvania

Dive into the best of the Keystone State, including shoofly pie, hoagies and, of course, cheesesteaks. 

By: Katherine Rapin

Prized P.A. Eats

There's a whole lot more to Pennsylvania's food-scape than cheesesteaks and soft pretzels. The cuisine of the Pennsylvania Dutch (a confusing misnomer since these settlers migrated from the region we now call Germany) lies between the hoagies of Philadelphia and the fry-topped salads of Pittsburgh. This list will lead you to unrivaled classics and to obscure destinations - like a chocolate company that predates Hershey's, a hole-in-the-wall pizza shop with the best 'white tray' you've never heard of, and a tiny bakery where Amish women still twist pretzels by hand.

Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs

Pretzels

Southeastern Pennsylvania is home to Snyder’s of Hanover, as well as some of the oldest pretzel bakeries in the country. The snack has long been a staple among the Pennsylvania Dutch: immigrants from what is today southeastern Germany. There are still small-scale local bakeries throughout the region, where you can watch workers twist pretzels by hand. Head to Martin’s Pretzels in Akron and hope for one fresh from the oven, which will yield a slightly chewy interior. 

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Martin's Pretzel Bakery

Old Forge-Style Pizza

In northeastern Pennsylvania, a whole pizza is a "tray" (not a "pie"), and a serving is a "cut" (not a "slice"). And it’s packed up to-go in shirt boxes, since Old Forge-style pizza predates pizza boxes. It’s fiercely beloved by locals — the staggering number of pizza shops in the area should be proof enough. Options are red — for a sturdy crust topped with sauce, diced onions and cheese — and white, which is often double-crusted, stuffed with cheese, and topped with herbs and black pepper. Go to Elio G’s for the classics, including his grandma’s recipe. He says she made the first pizza in the area back in 1926. Kids lined up around the block for her cuts with spicy sauce, onions and anchovies — a combo Elio calls the Nonni.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Elio G's

Italian Hoagie

Other places call it a sub, hero, grinder or torpedo; in Philly, it’s always the hoagie. Workers at the Navy Yard on Hog Island were called "hoggies" and got their favorite lunchtime sandwich named after them, or so the popular origin story goes. Ricci’s Hoagies has been serving build-your-own hoagies with sliced-to-order cold cuts since the '20s. Go for the classic Italian hoagie: Genoa salami, cooked salami and capocollo with provolone, tomatoes, pickled peppers, lettuce, onions, a drizzle of olive oil and a dash of oregano. Ricci’s also does an old-fashioned Italian, with prosciutto, soppressata, roasted peppers and sharp provolone.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Ricci’s Hoagies

Tomato Pie

This pizza-ish snack is essentially crust with a smear of red sauce and a dusting of cheese. There’s a plethora of old Italian bakeries in south Philly — including Cacia’s, Francoluigi’s and Sarcone’s — that serve it at room temperature by the slice. If you want to try a new-school adaptation, go to Square Pie, where the pizza dough gets 72 hours to ferment, which gives the chewy crust new depth of flavor. It’s served piping hot, topped with olive oil and grated Grana Padano. (Note: You won’t find "tomato pie" on the menu. It’s by request only.)

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Square Pie

Philadelphia-Style Vanilla Ice Cream

The city’s distinct style of ice cream, popularized by Bassets and Breyers in the late 19th century, is made of just milk, cream, sugar and flavoring — sans the common egg custard base. Historically, Philadelphians were loyal to vanilla and demanded specks of the actual bean in their scoops as evidence of quality. The Franklin Fountain, a whimsical ice cream parlor and soda fountain in Old City, Philadelphia, makes an unbeatable rendition of the classic. They use cream from a family-run, Pennsylvania dairy and load it with three unique vanilla extracts and plenty of beans. (If vanilla’s too boring for you, all their flavors are Philly style, and the sundaes are over the top.)

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: The Franklin Fountain

Scrapple

Scrapple is the traditional breakfast meat of Pennsylvania. Developed to minimize food waste, it’s made with pork trimmings leftover from butchering, mixed with cornmeal, formed into a block-shaped loaf, then sliced and fried. (If that sounds weird and gross, well, the state has its lovers and haters.) Sulimay’s, a homey diner near Kensington, serves Eggs Bensington, its tasty tribute to the neighborhood and to scrapple. Two thick pieces of toast are topped with crispy-on-the-outside, mushy-on-the-inside slices of scrapple, sharp cheddar cheese and dippy eggs — Pennsylvanian for sunny-side up.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Sulimay’s Restaurant

Soft Pretzel

Salty, chewy and cheap, the soft pretzel is the humble street food of Philadelphia. Its shape is unique, an oblong squashed knot, baked in a pretzel chain to best utilize oven space (because the city eats so many of them). They’re doled out from carts all over the city for breakfast, lunch and anytime snacks, always with mustard on hand for topping. Get them straight from the oven at Center City Pretzel Co. for 35 cents apiece. You can ask for a middle piece if you like extra chewy; if you want the most crust possible, go for a hand-twisted pretzel.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Center City Soft Pretzel Co.

Wedding Soup

Italian immigrants have had a strong influence in Pittsburgh, making wedding soup a popular dish throughout the city. Colangelo’s makes it every morning, full of tender chicken, acini de pepe (peppercorn-sized pasta) and little meatballs that leave enough room on your spoon for a pool of broth. Each bowl is topped generously with chopped fresh spinach and Romano cheese and served with housemade ciabatta. Make it a meal with a side of garlicky beans and greens, the dish locals line up for. And don’t miss the classic Italian pastries for dessert — their flaky sfogliatella alone is worth the wait.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Colangelo's

Philly Cheesesteak

Thinly sliced and griddle-fried beef, with or without onions, topped with Cheez Whiz, American or provolone (you choose), and piled into a long crusty roll — this is the Philly icon. Though Pat’s and Geno’s are the household names, many locals prefer John’s Roast Pork, where the steak is cooked to order and the rolls are seeded. The family-run sandwich shack has been around since the 1930s, and though named for another classic Philly sandwich, it's the local go-to spot for cheesesteaks too. Opt for sharp provolone rather than Whiz or American, and get it with onions (just say "wit" — it’s faster and lines are long) to pack in maximum flavor.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: John's Roast Pork

Pierogies

Pierogies are a regional tradition, especially near the Polish Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Apteka, a sleek but homespun spot, is giving new life to the Eastern European dish. Apteka has both the typical mushroom-and-sauerkraut pierogies, and a more innovative smoked potato with briny turnip and mustard greens. Though you’d be easily fooled, the entire menu is vegan. The pierogies come topped with cashew almond yogurt with mustard that tastes remarkably similar to horseradish cream — worth swiping up every last bit.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Apteka

Birch Beer

Like an herbier and slightly minty cousin to root beer, birch beer (in creamy red, brown and clear options) is available throughout Pennsylvania Dutch Country. It’s made with the sap of birch trees, which is distilled to make birch oil or extract. The classic brown birch is Reading Draft’s most-popular flavor, which you can pick up just a couple of miles from the soda company's factory at Say Cheese! Restaurant in West Reading. (Note: Their cheesemonger’s pick for a pairing is Mainland Vintage Cheddar.)

Go to: Say Cheese! Restaurant & Cheese

Tastykakes

State pride for this treat matches the Philly-based company’s simple claim: “Nobody bakes a cake as tasty as a Tastykake!” They’re thrown from the towers of the Eastern State Penitentiary at Philadelphia’s re-enactment of the storming of the Bastille (“Let them eat Tastykakes!”). At hockey games, the first Flyers player to score a goal gets a case donated to a charity of his choice (“And he scores ... for a case of Tastykakes!”). Pennsylvanians especially love the Peanut Butter Kandy Kakes and Butterscotch Krimpets, available at grocery and convenience stores across the mid-Atlantic. 

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Burnt Almond Torte

Prantl’s is a Pittsburgh institution, nationally famous for its burnt almond torte. Layers of light yellow cake are held together with vanilla custard, covered in snow-white buttercream and smothered in toasty sugared almonds. The nuts make the cake. Every morning, bakers toss sliced almonds with sugar, egg whites and water, then toast them until they’re golden and brittle. They press them onto all sides of each and every cake by hand. Prantl’s ships the cake to nostalgic former Pittsburghers all over the country.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Prantl's Bakery

Fried Fish Sandwich

What started as a Lenten tradition, the fish sandwich turned into an emblematic dish available in Pittsburgh’s bars and restaurants year-round. The landlocked city’s not stingy with the fish. Wholey’s Fish Market serves two colossal batter-dipped slices of fresh cod that dwarf the bun (a slightly sweet and feathery kaiser roll from Mancini’s Bakery right next door). Take a trip through the fish market to the seating area upstairs, where you can dress up the sandwich with tartar, cocktail or hot sauce. And make sure to grab a container of tangy coleslaw to go with.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Wholey’s Fish Market

Wilbur’s Chocolate

Turns out, the Kiss wasn’t exactly Hershey’s original idea. Wilbur’s Chocolate had been making its Wilburbuds (foil-wrapped chocolate morsels with the signature form Hershey’s later made famous) for 10 years before Hershey’s debuted its take in 1907. You can still get the original buds at the museum and store in Lititz, Pennsylvania, (just 25 miles east of Hershey). And right around the corner, Café Chocolate of Lititz uses Wilbur’s 65 percent cacao chocolate (made exclusively for the Café) for its themed menu. The dark chocolate crepe, stuffed with mascarpone, strawberries and a rich chocolate ganache, is a local favorite.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Café Chocolate

Mushroom Strudel

Roughly half of America’s mushrooms are grown in Chester County, Pennsylvania, the home of the first commercially cultivated fungi. Seven miles from the mushroom capital — Kennet Square — Hank’s Place is known for its mushroom strudel. They cook cremini, shiitake, portobello and white mushrooms into a rich sauce with cream cheese and savory bits of ham and dried beef. It’s wrapped in a neat phyllo package and baked until golden and crispy. The restaurant is just a mile from the studio of Andrew Wyeth — the American painter most famous for Cristina’s Worldwho used to frequent the corner table.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Hank's Place

Red Beet Eggs and Ring Bologna

Black Forest Brewery rounds up the classic snacks of the region for its Pennsylvania Dutch platter. Most of the components are made locally, like the ring bologna from Hippey’s Meat Company in Denver, pickles from the nearby Green Dragon Market, and the brewery owner’s housemade red beet eggs (hard-boiled eggs pickled with vinegar, sugar, spices and beets) — a classic Pennsylvania Dutch recipe. Make sure to enjoy the hearty plate of snacks alongside a Black Forest beer.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Black Forest Brewery

Snapper Soup

Stewlike snapper soup made with, yes, actual snapping turtle meat, used to be a staple at high-class bars and private clubs in Philadelphia. It’s been on the menu at the Oyster House, a family-run Philadelphia-favorite, since the '70s. They boil whole turtles (shell and all!) to make the rich stock, and add simple mirepoix, allspice and cloves for their warming version of the classic. It’s brightened with chives and garnished, as is traditional, with hard-boiled egg and a side of sherry to splash into the soup. It’s, perhaps surprisingly, delicious, and it should be followed up by a tray of oysters.

Photo courtesy of the Oyster House

Go to: Oyster House

Philly Surf and Turf

The under-the-radar Philly surf and turf, a local invention, is strange, but you should know right off that it’s tastier than it sounds. Start with a sturdy bun from a local Italian bakery. Add a fried fish cake, lay a beef hot dog down the middle, then top the lot with pepper hash — a Pennsylvanian cabbage, pepper and vinegar slaw — and you have the unexpectedly delicious combo. Get it at Johnny’s Hots, where you can sub in the restaurant's famous hot sausage for the dog.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Johnny's Hots

Shoofly Pie

Eat this sticky-sweet pie on a back porch in the summertime and the name makes sense (the less charming reason for the name is the Shoo Fly molasses brand popular in the late 19th century). The "wet-bottom" molasses pie that Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, loves best has a thin pastry crust on the bottom, a sugary crumb cake topping and a middle-layer of thickened molasses that gets cooked until it’s just set but still gooey. Go to Zig’s Bakery in Lancaster Central Market for the standard-setting version of the Pennsylvania Dutch classic. You can get a mini pie to enjoy with a cup of coffee at the market, or pick up a whole pie to take home.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Zig's Bakery

Water Ice

Despite its charmingly nonsensical name, water ice is a South Philly highlight. Not quite Italian Ice, not quite a slushie, the seasonal treat has a velvety texture all its own. John’s Water Ice has been spinning filtered water, sugar and fresh fruit juices in batch freezers since 1947. You’ll find bits of pulp in the lemon water ice, John's most-refreshing flavor. Saloon, a family-run Italian spot a couple blocks from John’s, serves it with citron vodka and limoncello in its seasonal (early April through late September) Iceberg Martini.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin 

Go to: Saloon

Roast Pork Sandwich

Though it stands in the shadow of the cheesesteak, roast pork, piled with broccoli rabe, sharp provolone and long hots, makes up the arguably more flavorful Philly sandwich. Get it at Paesano’s, where the cheese and garlicky greens punctuated by hot peppers melt into a drippy toothsome mess of slow-roasted pulled pork on a seedy roll. (You’ll definitely need the hand-washing sink they’ve placed under the chalkboard menu.) It’s listed on the menu as The Arista, Tuscan-style roast pork that got its name from Greek origins. It means "the best."

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Paesano's

Pitts-Burger

Pittsburgh’s Primanti Bros. is famous for massive sandwiches, piled high with french fries, coleslaw and tomatoes. Order the classic Pitts-Burger and your patty will be topped with sharp provolone — plus the standard trifecta — and smashed between slices of soft Italian bread. Though the company is newly franchised and spreading their sandwich craze to neighboring states, the original location in Pittsburgh’s strip district maintains the feel of the old-school sandwich counter the Primantis opened in the 1930s.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Primanti Bros.

Pittsburgh Salad

In Pittsburgh, french fries belong on sandwiches and salads. Lettuce topped with grilled steak or chicken, a few vegetables, cheese and a heap of french fries is on the menu at most restaurants in the city. (Many Pittsburghers can legally drink before they realize fry-topped salads are not normal elsewhere.) At Pamela’s, the city’s beloved diner, iceberg lettuce is topped with tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, shredded cheddar, grilled chicken and french fries, all served in a mixing bowl with a side of housemade ranch. It might just make you wonder what’s so great about croutons anyway.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Pamela's Diner

Zucchini Planks

Zucchini planks are a go-to order at bars all over Pittsburgh. Broad, thin strips of zucchini are breaded and fried, topped with a generous dusting of Parmesan and served with marinara and a cold beer. At Nico’s Recovery Room, a typical Steel City dive bar, they’re shatteringly crisp and hot. Yes, your mouth will be watering as you practice massive restraint and let them cool. Play a game of darts while you wait.

Photo courtesy of Katherine Rapin

Go to: Nico’s Recovery Room