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Ask an out-of-towner to name the first cheese that pops in their head when you mention Philly, and you’re likely to get one of two answers: Cheez Whiz, for obvious reasons, or Philadelphia Cream Cheese (which is most definitely not from here).
Historically, the answer could be provolone. Not just any prov, but that “funky like an old batch of collard greens,” extra-sharp version that hangs like decorations above the counter of shops in the Italian Market.
But there’s another entry worth considering.
It’s a bold proclamation, and some might shoot it down, but there’s a case to be made that the ultra-creamy processed cheese known as Cooper Sharp is Philadelphia’s true hometown queso.
Cooper Sharp has called Philly home since 1918, according to the brand website, when banker-turned-dairy entrepreneur I.C. Cooper moved his company south from its origins in upstate New York. The loaves of yellow and white cheese were originally sold in unique wooden cases that can probably be found on Antique Row.
Like other cheese commonly referred to as “American,” Cooper Sharp is made by piping a liquified, pasteurized mix of whey, proteins, and emulsifiers into molds and letting it harden.
As its name suggests, it has more bite than some other, better-known brands, with a more cheddar-forward flavor. Around the Northeastern U.S., and especially in Philly, professional and home chefs prize that combination of taste and superior melting qualities. Many people swear by it as the ideal cheese for a cheesesteak.
These days, the brand is owned by Wisconsin-based Schreiber Foods, but it’s still sold at supermarkets around the region — and used in many delis, taverns, and restaurants.
Ready to dig in? Read on for six standout places to try Cooper Sharp in Philadelphia.
Cheesesteak at Angelo’s Pizzeria
736 S. 9th St. (Italian Market)
Many pizzerias around the city use Cooper Sharp when you ask for “American” on your cheesesteak, but few are as famous as this one. Served on proprietor Danny Giampietro’s house-baked seeded roll, this sandwich is a beast. Bring cash, and don’t forget to ask for extra napkins to soak up that cheesy burst as you bite in.
Breakfast sandwich at Middle Child
The absurdly fluffy eggs get all the attention in the breakfast sandwich at this Center City destination, but the Cooper Sharp cheese that tops them plays an important supporting role. The combo is livened up with arugula and served on toasted potato bread.
Long hot bagels at Korshak
1700 S. 10th St. (East Passyunk)
One of the most creative uses is baker Philip Korshak’s crispy, chewy Cooper Sharp long hot bagel. The flavorful cheese adds to the tang provided by the wild yeast sourdough starter (which goes by the name Helen Mirren, btw). Get it by the dozen to take home — place an advance order online to beat the sellout — or stop by and order one with a schmear.
Pork roll sliders at O’Jung’s Tavern
1625 S. 2nd St. (Pennsport)
For brunch, happy hour, or dinner, this family-owned pub on Two Street offers a filling snack: pretzel buns spread with spicy mustard, laid with slices of pork roll, and finished with oozing Cooper Sharp cheese sauce. Look for specials that swap out the pork roll for sliced filet mignon.
Burger at Pub & Kitchen
1946 Lombard St. (Rittenhouse)
This upscale tavern has been famous for its burger since it opened more than a decade ago, even as different chefs keep changing it up. The current incarnation has a 6-oz patty of Happy Valley beef topped with pickles, bacon, carmelized onions — and of course, Cooper Sharp.
Grilled cheese at Mom Mom’s Kitchen
1505 South St. (South Street West)
This takeout window next to Bob & Barbara’s is known for pierogi, but the changing menu includes all kinds of Polish-inspired food. If you’re lucky, they’ll have the gooey grilled cheese made with Cooper Sharp and smoked Swiss on rye. (If not, try the cheesesteak potato dumplings with caramelized onion and black pepper ketchup.)