Backstory: Philly's cheesesteak wars

Travel the world and you'll find many a Philly cheesesteak. But you won't find one here. In Philly, it's a Larry's cheesesteak, or a Dan's, or a Steve's, each offering a sandwich with it's characteristic crumbliness of filling, chewiness of roll, and attitude. Here, fans carry the banner for their favorite cheesesteak - debating vigorously the perfect cheese consistency, recruiting converts to a softer roll, chauffeuring friends over two highways and a toll bridge, even, to proffer true cheesesteak perfection.

Many of them head to 9th and Wharton Streets at Passyunk in South Philly - a quirky, multipoint corner anchored by two of the city's premier eateries: Pat's King of Steaks and Geno's Steaks. Neither considers the other a competitor. Of course not.

Even in winter, the dining on this corner is al fresco. The tables have fried onion drippings on them. The airspace is a-swirl with straw wrappers. A backfiring 4x4 decorated with Flyers decals provides the background music.

Here, haute cuisine is a $7 long roll oozing chopped beef, Cheez Whiz, and fried onions, hold the brotherly love.

Because the lines for service can extend around the block, speedy ordering is everything on this corner. Veterans and their imitators bring a certain swagger to the window, barking in a code which describes number of sandwiches desired, plus extras: "whiz" for "with Cheez Whiz," "wit," for "with onions."

It's a brisk-moving litany when it works: "Two wit ... One whiz-wit, one Coke ... Three whiz ..."

Rookies, tentative, stand back, study the menu, then exceed the unofficial four-word limit: "Hello, may I please have one whiz. No, wait - wit. No. Whiz-wit ... wait." On a good day, there might be some coaching from the window. But if there's a line, well, legend has it you'll be sent to the rear to practice your ordering skills - no kidding - like a mortified third grader who misspelled "cat."

For Kathy Smith, night manager at Pat's King of Steaks, the line is both her reason for being and the bane of her existence. She's serving as many as 200 "breads" an hour, so she prefers customers to go somewhere else to fumble for their money.

"I'm not here to be nice to you. My whole goal is to take care of the guy behind you," she says during a break. "Sometimes I'm afraid to come outside, I've been so rude to people."

To Ms. Smith, who grew up half a block away, anyone not from the neighborhood is a tourist, and she's not a fan. "You can tell by the way they're eating," she says, nodding toward the groups of diners unknowingly getting it wrong. "South Philly wouldn't be sitting and eating. South Philly would be standing and talking to each other and eating." And to Smith, at least, they'd be standing and eating and talking to each other at Pat's.

Smith, whose father supported his wife and three children working at the stand, has worked here herself since 1984. Her staff, mostly men, earn between $9 and $13 an hour - good for someone who hasn't finished high school. It is still run by the Olivieri family, who opened it in 1930.

Where cramped Pat's is fluorescent and gray, Geno's, diagonally across the street, is orange, neon, spit-shined, and spacious. Opened in 1966, it might be the kinder, gentler cheesesteak. Or, as the second of the two shops you come to on one-way 9th street, they may just have a little more time for nice.

Manager Louis Maiorano and his staff - their eyes twinkling - say they enforce no ordering code. "Just tell us what you want. American cheese? We'll give you American cheese. 'Wit, wit?' - there's no such thing," Mr. Maiorano insists. He takes pride in offering a well-wrapped sandwich, not the wide-open kind slid across the counter across the street.

No one in town keeps estimates on the cheesesteak's bite of the local economy, says Mary Flannery of the Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce. Nor is there a predominant local franchise. "Every corner pizza shop has its own version," she explains.

Outside Geno's, Greg Cuta, from the neighborhood, rattled off cheesesteaks he has known and loved. "I like Jim's at 4th and South. They chop it up small. Tony Luke's - the rolls are crispy at the ends. Dalessandro's? I haven't been there in a while."

The food isn't the only ingredient in his chow-down. He and his fiancée feel that they were dissed by Pat's staff a few months ago and haven't been back since. "[Geno's and Pat's] are both like the 'soup Nazi.' But Geno's is a little more polite."

Toward evening, Geno's neon glow brings a carnival-like promise of excitement to its surroundings - a neighborhood of narrow streets and tiny, brick rowhouses, their windows, many of them, trimmed with silk flowers or statues of the Virgin Mary. Here, Mom still lives around the corner, or at least you want to believe she does.

Out on 9th, shouts of " 'D' it up!!" drift from the basketball court, and - not 18 inches from the tables - an unrelenting logjam of cars, bikes, strollers, and motorcycles trundles past, some stopping to double-park, others idling. An airportshuttle stops by. So does a stretch Hummer. Brides are known to come by in full dress. And then there are the celebrities.

"Andwe had Bill Clinton first. Before he was famous," boasts Maiorano.

The corner serves up its breads 'round the clock, seven days a week, with business picking up around 9 p.m., and peaking from midnight to 4 a.m. The fights, the drunks, the cussing make appearances in the wee hours. "You give me a hard time and I'll send you to Geno's," Smith tells customers with attitude. Geno's has been known to return the favor.

But here, at ground zero in the city's cheesesteak wars, there's no rivalry. None.

"Not between Pat's and Geno's. Maybe between Geno's and Pat's," sniffs Smith of Pat's.

Maiorano, of Geno's, lobs one back: "There's no other place here but us."

But scratch a little and the battle is joined: There's the grease content. The family secrets. The size of the giving to local charities.

As the skyscrapers to the north fade into the night, a cab pulls up. A neatly dressed businessman steps out at Geno's gleaming window.

"Hello. I'm from Tennessee," he drawls. "I'm told this is the best place to get a cheesesteak in Philadelphia?"

Maybe it is. Maybe it is.

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