Cheesesteak choice a rite of passage for Philadelphia's pro athletes

Alex Wong is an NBA freelance writer whose work has appeared in GQ, The New Yorker, Sports on Earth, and Complex, among other publications.

Before he was selected first overall by the Philadelphia 76ers in this year’s NBA draft, there were plenty of questions surrounding Markelle Fultz, the talented point guard out of Washington.

Why didn't the Huskies win more games last season? What red flags did Danny Ainge see in Fultz that made him relinquish the first overall pick? How will Fultz's game translate to the pros?

Once it was clear he would become a 76er, there was a more pertinent question: Which Philly cheesesteak place would Fultz choose as his favorite?

When athletes join a professional sports team in Philadelphia, it's often the first thing the fan base wants to know. "It's a rite of passage," Frank Olivieri Jr. said. "I don't think there's anything like it in the world. It's so unique."

Olivieri is a third-generation owner of Pat's, which lays claim to being the original cheesesteak place.

The origin of the cheesesteak sandwich goes like this: In 1930, brothers Pat and Harry Olivieri were low on cash when Harry stuffed some meat scraps into a roll to eat, which got the attention of a passing cab driver, who ate half of the sandwich and told the brothers they should stop selling hot dogs.

The rest is history.

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

Olivieri compares the experience of eating at Pat's to visiting Anchor Bar restaurant in Buffalo, the home of the original Buffalo wing. "We've been here for 80 years," he said. "Everyone is newcomers compared to that."

Despite being the original, there are plenty of other cheesesteak options in Philadelphia, and athletes are often encouraged to pick their favorite. Across the street from Pat's is Geno's, founded in 1966 by Joey Vento. Todd MacCulloch, who played for four seasons with the 76ers, calls it his favorite.

While the restaurants are often gracious and delighted by the additional publicity that comes with an athlete's endorsement, the validation is reciprocal. "If they recognized you and liked the way you played, you might get invited inside Geno's through the back door," MacCulloch said in an email exchange.

Geno's has one semi-circular booth inside, and seating is by special invite only. MacCulloch always felt welcomed when he would go up to the window to order at Geno's and got the go-ahead to sit down. "My out of town friends were always impressed," he said.

Pat's and Geno's are the most popular in the city, but there are plenty of other cheesesteak spots that athletes, tourists, and locals prefer.

Shamus Clancy, a Sixers Twitter personality who was born and raised in South Philadelphia, is well-versed on the topic.

"Some people will tell you that (Pat's and Geno's) are trash," Clancy said. "But as a lifelong South Philadelphian, I will tell you that those people are try-hards who are being too hipster. They're both more than serviceable. There are no bad spots to me."

Clancy has his own favorites: Phillip's on 23rd and Passyunk, Jim's on 4th and South, and Joe's on Torresdale Ave.

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

In 2014, GQ food writer Alan Richman tried 23 different cheesesteak spots in Philadelphia in a single day, ranking Sonny's - located by the Liberty Bell - as his No. 1 choice (Pat's was seventh on the list; Geno's was 10th).

Another one of MacCulloch's favorites is Larry's, which has several locations in the city.

Larry's is known for its "belly filler," which, according to MacCulloch, would always take up the entire surface of his lunch tray. On its website, the restaurant promotes itself as the official caterer of the Philadelphia 76ers.

Interviewed by Jimmy Kimmel moments after being selected by the 76ers on draft night, Fultz was asked by the late-night host whether he prefers Pat's or Geno's. Instead, the rookie chose Larry's.

"That was amazing. It was so great," a manager at one of the Larry's locations said. "But the thing is, Larry's is used to that."

Kobe Bryant, a Philadelphia native, rarely made a trip to the city during his NBA career without visiting. Bryant was spotted at a Larry's before his final game in Philadelphia back in 2015. "It gives us an adrenaline rush," the manager said of the star's cameos.

According to the manager, when Kobe visited, he would always order a cheesesteak with American cheese and fried onions, and would go in the kitchen and shake every employee's hand.

So, does Larry's fill up the order a little for their most famous guest? "Of course," the manager said. "Anything for Kobe." Which leads to another question: Who would the employees at Larry's cheer for when the Lakers visited the Sixers? "That's a question I cannot answer," he said, laughing.

(Photo courtesy: Action Images)

A proper cheesesteak endorsement can endear an athlete to the famously fickle fan base in Philadelphia, but backlash awaits those who don't do it properly. Clancy recalled a story about Philadelphia Phillies outfielder Ben Revere, who drew the ire of many fans online when he went to Pete's and ordered a chicken cheesesteak with lettuce and tomato.

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz caused a similar controversy when he tweeted out a photo of his favorite earlier this year: a homemade venison Philly cheesesteak.

And then, there are cheesesteak tales that can't be confirmed. At Talk of the Town, another cheesesteak spot by the South Philadelphia Sports Complex where the Eagles play at Lincoln Financial Field, an autographed picture of Donovan McNabb hangs on the wall. According to Clancy, the urban legend is that McNabb would stop by and have a cheesesteak before every game.

For lesser-known cheesesteak spots in Philadelphia, an endorsement from a well-known athlete can help launch the business to new heights. Meanwhile, an established place like Pat's doesn't necessarily need the additional publicity.

"An endorsement for any cheesesteak joint in Philadelphia is an endorsement for Pat's," Olivieri said. "Because, frankly, when you think about it: we invented it."

He admitted that even though certain rivalries (Pat's vs. Geno's) are played up, most of the cheesesteak restaurant owners in the city are friends. They regularly meet for dinner, and go for drinks from time to time. Still, Olivieri couldn't pass up an opportunity to get in a friendly jab at Geno's.

(Photo courtesy: Getty Images)

"For every 10 sandwiches I sell, he sells one," he said, laughing. "My trash is so full with Geno's because people take a bite, throw them in my trash, and get one of our sandwiches. I should send them a bill for my trash, that's how much it costs me each month."

Olivieri would love for the Eagles to come celebrate a Super Bowl win at Pat's, even offering to cater the entire thing for free. "If you go by their record, it's never going to cost me a dime," he said, like any true frustrated Philadelphia sports fan.

Olivieri enjoys seeing athletes try out different cheesesteak spots - whether it be Pat's, Geno's, Larry's, or somewhere else - before deciding on their favorite. Although he did issue a warning: "Usually, people who say Geno's don't last in Philadelphia for too long."

Cheesesteak choice a rite of passage for Philadelphia's pro athletes
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