10 Food Dishes That Are Absolute Symbols of Pennsylvania

Homemade Philly Cheesesteak Sandwich
bhofack2/iStock via Getty Images

Written by Marisa Higgins

Updated: November 17, 2023

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The Keystone State is home to an array of interesting food dishes, many of which honor the rich traditions of Dutch culture, while others are unique innovations from urban hubs like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. No matter the origins, these food dishes from Pennsylvania portray the state’s industrial nature and spirit, along with its cultural evolution. Let’s explore the 10 food dishes that have become absolute symbols of Pennsylvania. 

Discover 10 Food Dishes That Are Absolute Symbols of Pennsylvania.

1. Philly Cheesesteak

Philly cheesesteak sandwich and french fries

Philly cheesesteak fans are torn between the toppings of Cheeze Whiz, provolone, and American cheese.

Of course, when talking about the food dishes that hail from Pennsylvania, it would be impossible to forget the iconic Philly cheesesteak. This Philadelphia-born sandwich dates back to 1930 when Pat Oliveri was operating a hot dog cart near the Italian Market in South Philadelphia. As legend goes, Oliveri eventually tired of hot dogs and tried throwing some beef on the grill one day. The chopped beef was cooked with onions and then scooped onto an Italian roll. A nearby cabbie caught a whiff of the delectable smell and asked for a sandwich, which led to other taxi drivers hearing about the sandwich and wanting to try one. 

You might be wondering about the cheese—that didn’t come until the 1940s. Pat’s King of Steaks, which is still open today, eventually added provolone, a demand from employees and customers. For example, Geno’s Steaks, Oliveri’s rival, was the first to add cheese, according to the restaurant’s late owners. However, there are several different variations of the Philly cheesesteak. Some cheesesteaks use Cheez Whiz or American cheese instead of provolone, and some come without onions. Regardless of the cheese selected, the Philly cheesesteak continues to be synonymous with the Philadelphia food scene as well as an important symbol of Pennsylvania cuisine. 

2. Hot Soft Pretzels 

two pretzels with sea salt

Nothing beats dipping a hot soft pretzel in yellow mustard.

Philadelphia is also known for its delicious, iconic soft pretzel. Although pretzels were originally invented in Italy, most likely around 610 A.D., as a way for Italian monks to encourage their students to study harder. The pretzel’s popularity spread throughout Europe and eventually made its way to the United States when the Pennsylvania Dutch immigrated to the country. According to oral legend, baker Ambrose Roth collected the recipe from a homeless man he offered shelter to for the night. Roth eventually passed on the recipe to his apprentice William Sturgis, who baked the first American pretzel in 1861, about 75 miles west of Philadelphia in Lititz, Pennsylvania. 

Although New York and Chicago boast of being the home to the American pretzel, the Julius Sturgis Pretzel Factory, located in Lititz, was the first commercial pretzel bakery in the United States. The Sturgis family continues to use the recipe for 1861 to bake pretzels today. The pretzel shape, a symbol of love and romance, is sprinkled with coarse salt and baked to a crispy, golden exterior. Soft pretzels are enjoyed with mustard, and street vendors in Philadelphia, as well as other major cities, serve delicious hot soft pretzels as snacks. 

3. Pierogi

Dumplings, filled with potato. Dumplings with filling

There is much debate about how to best cook a pierogi.

Pittsburgh, another urban center in Pennsylvania, is also home to food dishes that are quintessential symbols of the state. Pierogi were brought to the United States by Central and Eastern European immigrants. Many of these immigrants settled in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and New York, areas that are well-known for their Polish and Ukrainian populations. Pierogi, a classic Pittsburgh dish, is a dumpling that is typically filled with potatoes, cheese, or other savory ingredients. In Pittsburgh, the pierogi is generally served with butter, onions, and sour cream. Although the classic pierogi is usually boiled in water, some versions are deep-fried. Some claim that par-boiling followers by deep-frying is the best way.

4. Primanti Sandwich

Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

The Primanti sandwich originates from Pittsburgh’s Strip District.

During the Great Depression, Joe Primanti was operating a sandwich in Pittsburgh. The shop, located in the now-historic Strip District, is home to the Primanti sandwich. A classic Pittsburgh dish, this sandwich is reminiscent of the city’s industrial past during a dark time in the country’s history. Although the Primanti sandwich is “half hazy memory, half lore,” it is nonetheless true. Primanti’s nephew John DiPriter says that someone brought over a load of potatoes, which Primanti fried up. Customers asked for some fries, and Primanti tossed them on the sandwiches. The sandwich made it easy for drivers to eat with one hand, making the meal an instant hit. Today, the restaurant has franchises across Pennsylvania as well as in Ohio and West Virginia. The sandwich also comes in a variety of other flavors and styles, with many unique adaptations of the original. 

5. Crabfries

Philadelphia on Broad Street

Philadelphia is home to innovative cuisine and dishes, one of which is crabfries.

Since 1977, crabfries have been a Philadelphia staple. These crinkle-cut French fries are sprinkled with crabby species and served with a white cheese sauce. When Pete Ciarrocchi, son of restaurant owners, decided to start his own business, he was initially unsure of his product. Ciarrochi began experimenting with spices left over from the summer crab season. He put a combination of these seasonings on french fries, and after customer feedback, he would make adjustments. 

After perfecting the recipe, Ciarrochi began selling crabfries at festivals before opening his first restaurant, Chickie’s & Pete’s in 1987. By 1998, Ciarrochi had been invited to set up a Chickie’s & Pete’s location at Veterans Stadium. Crabfries immediately became synonymous with Philly sports teams and sports snacks. Today, crabfries are a registered trademark owned by Chickie’s & Pete’s, ensuring that the recipe remains a family secret, and quite possibly, a Philadelphia secret as well.

6. Tomato Pie

pie with tomato tart of puff pastry

Many claim that traditional tomato pie has a focaccia-like crust.

Is it pizza? Is it pie? Yes, to both! The Pennsylvania tomato pie is an open-faced pie with a hearty tomato topping. With its Sicilian-like qualities, the crust for tomato pie resembles a combination of focaccia and pizza dough. The topping is a tomato-based mixture, featuring fresh tomatoes, olive oil, fresh herbs, and garlic. Some variations also include a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese. Although there are different variations and adaptations across Pennsylvania, the basic concept remains consistent and cherished. 

7. Shoofly Pie

Shoofly Pie

Shoofly pie, which was called “centennial cake,” developed a crust over time.

Hailing from the Pennsylvania Dutch tradition, shoofly pie is a sweet and gooey classic Dutch treat. Shoofly pie started as a crust-less cake that was called “Centennial Cake.” It was created in 1876 to celebrate the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia. After the centennial was long over, the pie was adapted, and many bakers began adding crust to make it less messy. 

Often, shoofly pie was eaten out of hand at breakfast time. Because the traditional pie doesn’t contain eggs, historians presume that it was made during the winter, while chickens weren’t laying eggs. Overall, there are different variations—some eat “wet bottom” Shoofly pie, while others eat “dry bottom” pie. Regardless of how the dessert has evolved, the name is claimed to have derived from the molasses center which attracts flies, meaning that you’d be shooing flies away until the cake had cooled.

8. Scrapple

Frying scrapple slices on a cast iron pan

Scrapple is a good example of reducing food waste by using up as many leftover ingredients as possible.

The name scrapple suggests that the dish is made up of scraps. The dish’s name actually comes from the German word panhaskröppel, which the Germans called Panhas. Panhaskröppel was easy for Americans to butcher, which inevitably led to the word becoming adapted and shortened to simply: scrapple. The German word loosely translates to “pan rabbit,” and the dish is traditionally pork scraps mixed with cornmeal and wheat flour. The mixture is formed into a loaf, sliced, and fried until crispy. This dish harkens to the industrial spirit of many early Pennsylvania families. 

9. Stromboli 

Stromboli stuffed with cheese, salami, green onion and tomato sauce

Traditional Italian Stromboli has sauce in the filling whereas calzones have the sauce served on the side.

Stromboli dates back to 1950s Philadelphia. Nazzareno Romano began selling rolled-up pizza filled with ham, cheese, and peppers. To this day, there is much debate about the differences between a calzone and stromboli. A calzone hails from Italy, meanwhile, stromboli is more popular in the southern regions of Italy. Another key difference is the shape. Calzones are round and folded in half, while stromboli uses rectangular dough which is rolled and then sealed. Lastly, while the fillings might be similar, calzones have sauce on the side, while stromboli has sauce in the filling.

The Romano family continues to roll stromboli weekly and ships to locations all across the country. The restaurant is owned and operated by third-generation Romanos, and the famous stromboli continues to be a staple of Philadelphia innovation and Pennsylvania cuisine.  

10. Pot Pie

Social Media Food Trends

Pennsylvania Dutch pot pie resembles chicken noodle soup.

The Pennsylvania-Dutch version of pot pie is quite unlike the common conception of pastry-topped pot pies. This dish has pieces of dough trimmed into square pieces and cooked in a hearty broth with chicken and vegetables. Although this dish shares no resemblance to pie, this version is continuously recognized as a comfort food to many Pennsylvanians. 

The Most Popular Pennsylvania Food Dishes

The notable cuisine and food dishes that have originated from Pennsylvania showcase a diverse culinary landscape. From Pennsylvania Dutch to Italian, the unique innovations of the Keystone State’s residents form an interesting amalgamation of people and their cultures. These iconic dishes point to Pennsylvania’s unique culinary heritage, while also emphasizing how quintessential these dishes are to both current and past Pennsylvanians. Be sure to try any of these dishes the next time you find yourself in the Keystone State.

Summary of the 10 Food Dishes That Are Absolute Symbols of Pennsylvania

1Philly Cheesesteak
2Hot Soft Pretzels
4Primanti Sandwich
6Tomato Pie
7Shoofly Pie
10Pot Pie

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About the Author

Dr. Marisa Higgins is a writer at A-Z Animals where her primary focus is on travel, places to visit, and fun activities. Marisa holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and French, a Master of Arts in English, and a Ph.D. in English, and she's spent the past decade teaching, writing, and researching. She lives in Knoxville, TN with her husband, and their Beagle-Chihuahua, Rumi, and cat, Rory.

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