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Most of Philadelphia’s signature foods have transcended its borders. The cheesesteak is recognized from Anchorage to Australia. Neighboring states may tease about the pronunciation of “wooder” ice, but they certainly know about it. Even the city’s true favorite sandwich — roast pork with broccoli rabe and sharp provolone — got the national attention it deserves, when Adam Richman in 2012 named it “Best Sandwich in America.”
There’s one South Philly secret that hasn’t yet hit the big time. It’s the pizzaz: a sauceless pizza topped with American cheese, sliced tomatoes, and banana peppers.
You read that right. American cheese, on a pizza. In the heart of the city’s Italian American community.
“I love it,” said local illustrator and food historian Hawk Krall, who focuses his work on regional specialties. However, he acknowledged, “Some people hate it.”
How did this seeming sacrilege even come to be? Here’s the scoop.
Celebre’s Pizza in Packer Park, located next to Chickie’s & Pete’s in the shadow of the Linc, is thought to have originated the strange pie sometime in the 1980s. According to “Dinner at the Club,” the recently published book of stories and recipes from Palizzi Supper Club, the pizzaz moment of conception happened one slow day when brothers Ronnie and Robert Celebre were running the family shop.
Reminiscing about the grilled cheese he and his brother used to eat as kids, Ronnie decided to make a pizza that brought back the tastes of their childhood. He stretched out a round of dough, layered it with a healthy sheet of American cheese, and covered it with onion slivers and sliced whole tomatoes.
Ronnie tinkered with his recipe a bit, the story goes, eventually scrapping the onions and substituting rings of banana peppers (like the ones you see in a gallon plastic jug in every deli in South Philly). That combo he deemed ready for a staff taste test. Whether or not the workers actually liked or or just wanted to keep their jobs, they gave a collective thumbs up, and the pizzazz went on Celebre’s menu, where it remains to this day.
Other neighborhood pizzerias and bakeries found out about this unconventional combination and began creating their own versions.
The pizzaz has been available for decades at Cacia’s Bakery. Alongside its famous tomato pies, the small shop on the corner of 15th and Ritner offers square cuts of thin, crunchy crust topped with melted American cheese, tomato slices, and the requisite banana peppers. (Grab a scorched corner slice if they have one.)
You may have issues if you try to order the combo outside South Philadelphia. That’s what happened to neighborhood native and restaurant owner Anna Marie Maglio, who moved to the far Northeast when she married her husband Joe.
Maglio remembers calling a local pizzeria and ordering “a pizzaz.” She was given a sauceless crust covered with just about every topping the store had on hand.
A few years later, when she and Joe opened Cafe Carmela in Winchester Park, she knew she needed to include it on the menu so she could introduce her new neighbors to the South Philly secret.
When someone asks what it is, she has a ready answer: “It’s like a grilled cheese — with a little pizzazz!” Ronnie Celebre would be proud.