Whenever the topic of “Pennsylvania food” comes up you hear about cheesesteaks, Philly “wudder” ice, soft pretzels, Pennsylvania Dutch scrapple and whoopie pies, Lebanon bologna, and Pittsburgh’s Primanti Brothers French fry topped sandwiches (although as an aside: my brother who lives in Pittsburgh, speaks very low of this establishment). That’s all well and good and I’m not going to contest that any of these are not hallmarks of Pennsylvania cuisine, but they are not exactly what I think about when I hear the term “Pennsylvania food.”
I think of things like kielbasa, pierogies, potato pancakes, poppy seed and a very specific boxed pizza. The food of Northeastern Pennsylvania is grossly under-represented when it comes to the things people associate with this state.
NEPA is a strange place. Because of it’s secular location and decided lack of glamour or urban sprawl, it’s often overlooked as a key part of the state. It’s culinary traditions, which aren’t at all glamorous or highbrow (but I mean, is a cheesesteak or a hoagie with fries on top?), and without gimmick (although speaking of gimmicks my favorite “Pittsburgh” style sandwich is actually a “Pittsburgh Cheesesteak” from Steve & Irene’s in Mayfield) but unique none the less, are more or less forgotten, which is a real shame, because it’s some good stuff.
Part of the problem is that many of these products aren’t exactly sold at restaurants or stores. A lot of it is home-made or found at Church Picnics and Fire Company block parties, which are themselves, disappearing. This blog gives a much better and eloquent explanation than I could.
In fact, in order to sample some “NEPA cuisine” you might actually have to venture to other parts of the state, but I’m getting ahead of myself here.
Let’s first focus t on the food you could travel to NEPA and easily find. I know Chicago and New York are the ones who claim they excel at pizza but NEPA’s not so shabby herself. Old Forge PA, a small borough just south of Scranton is famous in the area for having the best pizza. I find it slightly overrated myself, but a lot of people really love it and it’d be a crime to not mention it when discussing the NEPA food scene (also, to be fair, I haven’t extensively sampled it). You can also check out NEPA Pizza Review for a more comprehensive list and reviews of other pizza in the area. Embarrassingly enough, one of my favorite pizzas form NEPA doesn’t come from a parlor, but rather a box. Nardones Brother’s frozen pizza, which can be found in most NEPA grocery stores. Trust me, this stuff is delicious. When my college housemate (who went with me to the University of Scranton and thus knew the glory of Nardones) got married in Rochester, he requested we bring several boxes of Nardones as a favor. And while it doesn’t have a website (as any self-respecting dive bar doesn’t), my absolute favorite pizza in the world is from DG’s bar, which you can find at 923 N. Main Street, in Forest City PA. It’s life-changing. I promise you this.
An eatery that’s been receiving a lot of attention lately is the What the Fork food-truck, which recently came in second in a food truck race on Live With Kelly and Michael. I’ve never been, but I’ve seen it all over Facebook lately.
Gertrude Hawks chocolates is based in Dunmore and although I don’t really have a sweet tooth, peanut butter smidgens always bring me back to NEPA Easters and a taste of their candy bars transports me back to high school, where we used to sell them for just about every fundraiser imaginable. Another hallmark of NEPA cuisine is La Festa Italiana, a huge celebration of Italian heritage and food that occurs every labor day in Scranton. Despite living in Scranton for five years, I’ve actually never ventured down to this because while I was in school I was awful and rarely left a 5 block radius (there were 2 bars, a twelve pack store, and two pizza places on my block and I was in college, could you blame me?).
Now we come to the hard-pressed to find stuff.
A large population of NEPA comes from Polish and Eastern European descent. The food reflects this and the food I most associate with my home area is the Pierogi, a dumpling traditionally (in NEPA, not necessarily in Eastern Europe) filled with potatoes and most commonly served sautéed with butter and onion or deep fried. Now, there’s a lot of different variations (I like when they’ve got some cheese in them) but those are the classic preparations. Growing up my family (I say my family because I was a horribly picky child and refused to eat any form of potato until high school…except for French fries because I was pretty dense and didn’t realize they were potatoes) usually had them at holidays or church picnics. Now, you can eat them pretty much all year long, and while they aren’t necessarily hard to find, a lot of people outside of NEPA (and Pittsburgh) don’t know what a pierogi is.
Mrs. T’s Pierogies is based in Schuylkill County and you could find them in any number of PA grocery stores. My brother enjoys Plumpy’s, originating in Jessup, but carried by a wide variety of distributors you could find on their website. If you’re in Philadelphia, you could head to Roxborough and visit the Pierogie Kitchen. Pittsburgh has plenty of piergoies to offer, but I’m going to mention Polish Pierogi because they not only have a Pierogi Truck and also sell a variety of other Polish foods for shipping including kielbasa (which we’ll get to momentarily), poppyseed (which we’ll also be mentioning) and stuffed cabbage (which we will not be mentioning because the smell of my grandfather cooking cabbage still scars me to this day).
Next up: kielbasa. Kielbasa is essentially a smoked Polish sausage, similar to a brat (but better) that I absolutely LOVE on the grill, but like pierogies, is hard to find in any restaurant menu, and the homemade/locally made kielbasa is not always available year round. Aside: I’m not one of those “everything homemade is better guys.” In fact, some things, like salad dressing and peanut butter are better mass produced. Kielbasa is better locally. End aside. A lot of NEPA grocery stores will make their own kielbasa, but Kowalonek’s Kielbasy Shop in Shenandoah is dedicated solely to its production, as is Kutsop’s Olde World Market in Blakely, while Schiff’s a large wholesale store in Scranton has a website dedicated to this delicious meat. Plymouth, PA is home to an annual Kielbasa Festival, which I think I need to make my way to ASAP.
Krakus Market is also an option, in the Polish neighborhood of Port Richmond, and here you can find not only kielbasa and pierogies, but other Eastern European foods as well (here are the best Polish food in Philly and Pittsburgh, respectively) . Two other ethnic foods I associate with NEPA are potato pancakes and poppyseed roll. Unfortunately, not even a few days of internet searching has provided me with places that specialize in these delicacies. Fortunately, if you are in NEPA, so many bars and restaurants include potato pancakes on their menu. A lot of people serve them with apple sauce. I slather mine with ketchup. As for poppyseed, it’s sort of elusive and cliché as it is, I really never enjoy any as much as my mother’s.
A final mention, while not food, needs to go out to Jezynowka (or Laroux, whatever you want to call it), a “Polish” blackberry brandy that I unequivocally associate with kielbasa, pierogies, poppyseed, and well NEPA. My family goes through bottles of this during the Thanksgiving-Christmas season and it may give Fireball some competition as the go to “soft” shot in NEPA. I’ve also never been able to order it at a bar outside the greater Scranton area. Beerwise, I could mention Lion’s Head, but honestly, I don’t know a ton of people at home who buy that regularly (and I already did a post on NEPA brews). In reality, the official beer of NEPA is anything you could in a pint for $2.00 and under. It’s a class area folks!
Again, this is not an end-all-be-all of NEPA cuisine, simply my take. What food do you associate with the area? Where are your favorite NEPA restaurants located? Let me know.