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July 27, 2006

Harry Olivieri — Co-inventor of the cheese steak as a 17-year-old boy in 1933 — is dead at 90


How is it possible that such a singular man should go so unremarked?

The New York Times simply republished a brief AP story on his passing on Thursday of last week in Pomona, New Jersey.

Only the Washington Post, among the myriad newspapers pouring in here daily, deigned to spend a little space on Harry.

Anita Huslin's evocative July 22 story made me vow to visit Pat's King of Steaks cheese steak emporium (above) in Philadelphia when the bookofjoe World Tour™ hits the City of Brotherly Love.

Here's the article.

    Harry Olivieri, The Man Wit' A Steak in His City

    If the character of a place is best explained by its food, then Harry Olivieri's cheese steak made it pretty simple to understand Philadelphia: You got your one wit', two wit' or your cheese wit'.

    That would be one steak with onions, two steaks with onions or one cheese steak with onions. The cheese being of the Whiz variety.

    This is all you really had to know to enjoy the iconic delicacy of the city. Didn't have to be any more complicated than that, something that John Kerry learned when he went to Pat's King of Steaks once and ordered one... with Swiss.

    You don't want Swiss, he was informed. Cheez Whiz. (Bill Clinton and Al Gore somehow knew that when they came to visit.)

    In the 76 years since he first slung a slab of beef on his hot dog stand and grilled up dinner for his brother, Pat, and himself, Harry Olivieri gave Philadelphians something to drool over.

    Thinly sliced eye roll, sauteed in oil and slipped into a fresh torpedo roll, now slathered with your choice of toppings and condiments: onions (raw or grilled), mushrooms, hot peppers, catsup, mustard and relish. Slightly greasy, generously beefy and with an unapologetic sense of dietary balance, it has evolved from the working man's dinner into the tourist's delicacy.

    "If you really sit down and think about it you have protein in the meat, carbs in the bread, dairy with the cheese, and onions, peppers and mushrooms -- your vegetables," says Maria Olivieri, Harry's daughter, and the proprietor of the business he left behind. He was 90 when he died Thursday in Atlantic City, where he was getting ready to launch a new string of franchises. He had suffered from heart disease since 1972.

    "As long as you're not eating them every day, every hour, that's quite a healthy combination," she says.

    Her father -- tired of eating hot dogs at the stand he ran with his brother -- made his first cheese steak one night after he bought a pound of beef for 7 cents and fried it up with some onions. A regular customer, a cab driver stopping for dinner in the middle of his shift, came by for his usual hot dog and smelled the fresh beef sandwich.

    "I don't want a hot dog, I want that," he supposedly said.

    "That's my dinner," Harry Olivieri replied.

    The cab driver insisted, and so Harry and Pat sold it to him for 25 cents.

    Since then, Pat's King of Steaks (so named because his brother, who died in the 1970s, was nine years older), has sold countless thousands, putting the cheese steak in the panoply of culinary greats such as Chicago's half smokes and Boston's lobster rolls.

    For 45 years, Pat's was open 24/7, closing only for holidays starting in 1975, when Maria began insisting on having the family home for Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year's and Easter.

    The cheese steak store on Ninth Street where it crosses Wharton and Passyunk avenues became a mecca for politicians, who learned that if they came to Pat's, "you can swing a few of the Italians, and that few will swing the rest for you," Olivieri said. Entertainers learned the same thing; from the performers who'd come after the shows at Palumbo's down the street to "American Idol" contestant Justin Guarini, who'd come to Pat's and sing for votes.

    Harry Olivieri's invention produced its own competition, when Jim's, Joe's and then Geno's opened across the street. The rivalry between the Olivieri brothers and the owner of Geno's has been long-standing, though Harry, raised a Quaker, always declined to disparage the competition.

    His daughter, Maria, is determined to maintain the tradition.

    "They do a nice business on our overflow," she says.

    Besides, she says, the Olivieri brothers' contribution to society has been noted in the nearby Franklin Institute.

    "My father is just as famous as the man who created the wheel," she says, "except the wheel is a little less fattening and it won't end up on your hips."


The floor is now open for comments.

If you feel they'd more appropriately festoon the walls or ceiling, by all means let them fly.

July 27, 2006 at 04:01 PM | Permalink


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Tracked on Jul 27, 2006 8:43:18 PM


Hey Joe, when you visit Philly your first cheesesteak is on me. :)

Posted by: Scott | Jul 27, 2006 6:29:18 PM

Pat's is good, but Geno's is better. Walk across the street. Or, go up to South Street and get a steak from Jim's. They're all good... I live too far away anymore, alas, to eat 'em often.

That said, Long Live Harry.

Posted by: Chooki | Jul 27, 2006 5:57:29 PM

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