Recently, my Inquirer colleague Allison Steele wrote about making, eating, and not absolutely hating the cheesesteak cheesecake — a well-meaning recipe created by a South Carolina food writer and Philly native — and the true Philadelphia “cheesesteak purists” among us wasted no time trashing the dish. Social media critiques included but were not limited to vile, gross, nasty, and a long list of synonyms for those words.
One commenter’s response: “I’d rather get hit by a SEPTA bus than eat that.”
That’s it, as far as canonical ingredients go.
What drove the hatred, even more than the misconception that the cheesesteak cheesecake was some kind of Frankenstein-esque cheesesteak/dessert hybrid, was the fact that it included GREEN PEPPERS. “We don’t put peppers on cheesesteaks,” one commenter wrote.
My rebuttal: Why not?
Many Philadelphians are missing the point. As a city, it’s time for us to claim the cheesesteak as a whole, not just the handful of ingredients that we arbitrarily deem are right because they’re “classic.” We’ve seen green peppers pop up on various cheesesteak remixes and purists always get offended.
But if the whole world thinks green peppers on a cheesesteak are delicious, maybe they are. Just because it isn’t the way it’s always been done, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
Before making my call for complete topping acceptance, I gauged my feelings by talking to a Philly cheesesteak expert. Few know as much about cheesesteaks as John Bucci, the third-generation owner of John’s Roast Pork.
He was kind enough to chat with me after a busy lunch rush on the grill. The heat of the kitchen didn’t dampen his eagerness to talk steaks. If anything, it seemed like it fueled him — prompting him to apologize for his lengthy cheesesteak rants. I assured him the conversation was delightful.
Right off the bat, he shared with me his favorite way to eat a cheesesteak — American cheese or mild provolone (because sharp provolone on a cheesesteak is too overpowering).
In 30-plus years working his craft, Bucci has seen some “disgusting” cheesesteak orders, but at this point, “nothing raises my eyebrows anymore,” he told me.
Despite Bucci’s classic roots, a non-traditional item that has become a fan favorite is the bruschetta cheesesteak, a sandwich that Bucci invented after an evening out. After enjoying bruschetta with dinner he thought to himself while lying in bed, “that would be great to top a cheesesteak.”
Tossing tradition aside, he dressed a cheesesteak with “tomato, celery, and basil” the very next day and the rest is history. Allowing creativity paved the way for Philadelphia to have a wonderful addition to our cheesesteak landscape.
I also wanted to hear from everyday Philadelphians to see what kind of curveball items were making their way onto cheesesteaks. I put out the call on social media and of the dozens of responses I received, of course, onions and the three cheeses topped the list. But I marveled at the collection of oddities that at least popped up once.
Pepperoni. Buffalo Sauce. Jalapeños. Honey Mustard. Chicken Fingers ... And yes, green peppers.
I’ll admit, putting whole chicken fingers on a cheesesteak might go too far.
In closing our conversation, I asked Bucci if he had a message for people who love cheesesteaks and get up in arms any time they see toppings other than onions present on one.
“Take it easy. Take it easy,” he said with a hearty chuckle. “There’s no wrong or right way.”
The lack of topping acceptance in our city has held our beloved sandwich back long enough. Consider the imagination around cheeseburgers because of the many ways you can transform them. No one blinks an eye when fried eggs, avocado, and mozzarella sticks wind up on burgers. But put green peppers on a cheesesteak and prepare for the mob.
One respondent with a particularly unique cheesesteak order said he usually only adds “quirky” toppings at home because of the shame of ordering them in public.
My challenge to Philadelphia is simple. Own the cheesesteak in all its forms. Let people love the sandwich the way their hearts desire. Embrace the creativity that has allowed hamburgers to reach the top of the food pantheon and that sent us the bruschetta cheesesteak.
Let’s be open-minded about Philly’s favorite sandwich. A “classic” cheesesteak should be one that is uniquely and unapologetically yours. We might make it even better than we ever imagined it could be.