Born and raised in Pottstown, Kristina Mazza has spent the last 7 years teaching Indianapolis the word “hoagie.”
The Penn State alum relocated to Indiana 15 years ago, following in the footsteps of her parents, who made the same move. After several years managing an Indianapolis restaurant group, Mazza decided to start her own venture. Enter Hoagies & Hops, which aims to offer Hoosiers an authentic taste of Pennsylvania and the Philly region.
“I missed the food,” Mazza told Billy Penn, explaining her inspiration. “And I knew that there had to be other people like myself, and my husband, and my parents.”
The restaurant, which shares space with the tap room of Chilly Water Brewing Company, has a decor that blends Pennsylvania and Indiana pride. On its walls hang memorabilia repping the Phillies, Sixers, Eagles, and Flyers — as well as Penn State, Villanova, and Temple — right alongside shoutouts to Indiana universities and teams.
There’s also a Liscio’s-branded clock, Dietz & Watson umbrellas shading outdoor tables, a Will Smith poster, and a cardboard cutout of Rocky.
The restaurant brings a sliver of the Keystone State’s distinct food culture to the Midwest — offering a novel experience to people who’ve never made the 600-mile journey eastward, while also giving East Coast transplants a taste of home.
Mazza isn’t alone in her endeavor to bring a taste of the Philly region elsewhere. Plenty of expats have brought southeastern Pennsylvania’s local cuisine to other cities, landing everywhere from the West Coast to New England to OG England.
Connecticut is now home to two locations of Philly’s: A Taste of Philadelphia, one in Norwich that’s been around for a decade and a just-opened sibling in New Haven. They’re operated by Shem Adams, who was born and raised in Southwest Philly and moved north about 20 years ago.
For Adams, Philly food was something he didn’t realize was distinct until he lived elsewhere. “Whether it’s the bread, the seasoning, or simply the brotherly love,” Adams told Billy Penn, “it’s just different.”
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Sometimes, those differences mean that a bit of translation has to happen for locals to understand his menu. For example, Adams sells water ice, which he said has prompted confused customers to ask, “Are you charging THAT for ice water?”
Andrew Ahn, who was born in New Jersey and grew up in Olney and the Philly suburbs, opened Boo’s Philly Cheesesteaks and Hoagies in Los Angeles a little over 10 years ago. Hoagies and cheesesteaks were “staples” for his family when he was growing up, Ahn said, and he ate them about once a week.
He moved out to LA to work on film projects two decades ago, he said — but when his parents moved out too, they complained they couldn’t find a good cheesesteak. Hence, Boo’s was born.
“It wasn’t like we had any real intent to bring cheesesteaks or hoagies out here,” Ahn said. “It was more of a necessity.”
All about the bread (and the oil, and the meat, and the cheese, and…)
As its name suggests, Hoagies & Hops’ menu has plenty of the signature sandwiches, but also an array of Philly and Pennsylvania Dutch foods. There are Herr’s potato chips, pickled red beet eggs, Hank’s Gourmet Beverages, and yes, cheesesteaks. You’ll also find some more creative items, like hot dogs topped with cheesesteak ingredients (reminiscent of the frankfurters at Pat’s King of Steaks) or wrapped in Seltzer’s Lebanon bologna and Muenster cheese.
It’s largely a mix of the regional cuisine Mazza grew up with at corner stores and farmer’s markets, along with her family’s Pa. Dutch recipes. But it all began with her love for hoagies.
Mazza started by partnering with the owners of a local brewery who were looking for a consistent food vendor. She crafted a hoagie menu with items named after places and things in Philly and Pennsylvania that meant something to her, and played around with a house oil recipe until she perfected the taste and texture.
She also made sure to source ingredients from the original area. The most important factor, Mazza said, is the bread — Liscio’s rolls shipped in from South Jersey. (The brand won out in a side-by-side taste test.)
“That’s the number one ingredient,” Mazza said. “If I couldn’t get the rolls, there would be no uniqueness.”
The result was a menu with sandwiches like the “Hog Island” (salami, ham, prosciutto, capicola, provolone, lettuce, tomatoes, onion, oil), the “Dutch Country” (Lebanon bologna, Muenster, whole grain beer mustard, lettuce, tomatoes), and the “Reading Terminal” (Italian marinated tomatoes, banana peppers, parmesan, provolone, lettuce, onion, oil).
Part of having such offerings has meant getting people to understand what differentiates a hoagie from the subs or sandwiches people in the area are used to.
“There’s definitely a lot to teach people,” Mazza said. “A hoagie should be on an Italian roll, not a French roll. A lot of people will still do French rolls of sorts.”
During her first year serving hoagies, Mazza found that folks in Indiana aren’t huge fans of cold sandwiches, so people just kept requesting “Phillys” — a term for cheesesteaks Mazza had never heard before since it’s mostly used outside the Philadelphia region. (“What should I have, like Mike Schmidt and the team?” she said.)
Perfecting cheesesteaks and seeking soft pretzels
Cheesesteaks were never Mazza’s personal go-to back home, but when she did add them to the menu, she wanted to make sure she did them right.
She took a trip to Philadelphia to refresh her memory, staying with a friend in Fishtown. She visited at least six different spots, and — between cheesesteaks and chicken cheesesteaks — tried around 14 or 15 varieties, she said. From there, she decided which style was her favorite: “mixing everything, because that way you get the same bites.”
She also decided she’d only offer types of cheeses typically offered in Philly — American, provolone, and whiz — unlike chain restaurants like Penn Station or Subway, which also offer options like pepper jack or Swiss. (Penn Station is an Ohio-based chain that brands itself as specializing in “East Coast subs.”)
“I don’t want somebody to put that on cheesesteak,” Mazza said, “because when you’re out in Philly and in the burbs, you’re not getting Swiss, mozzarella … I’m only gonna offer what’s authentic.”
The Hoagies & Hops menu is still subject to evolution. The restaurant used to offer soft pretzels, but Mazza has also been having difficulty finding a new bulk supplier since Indianapolis-based Pat’s Philly Pretzels went out of business during the pandemic.
They also run specials from time to time, Mazza said, like serving frizzled steak on top of a breaded pork tenderloin to create a fun Philly/Indiana crossover dish.
A pending addition to the repertoire is roast pork sandwiches. Figuring out how to do it right has been a process of trial and error, Mazza said.
The shop produced a solid result pretty recently — after Mazza traveled out to Philly a few weeks ago with Hoagies & Hops general manager Donnie Begley and watched DiNic’s make the sandwiches at Reading Terminal Market. Finding a consistent supply of sharp provolone has been the holdup, per Mazza.
“That’s something we’d love to put on the menu,” she said. “It’s just still trying to figure out … logistics.”
Finding your people through food
When customers from Philadelphia first visit Philly’s in Connecticut, they can be a little skeptical, said Adams, the proprietor. He likes to “warm them up by showing them the Amoroso bags or us slicing fresh ribeye on the spot,” and they usually can tell he’s the real deal after a conversation with him, he said.
For Ahn, who runs Boo’s in Los Angeles, the whole aim of his operation is to produce “comfort food” that’s Philly done right.
“We’re not fancy, we’re not bougie, we’re not trying to be something that we’re not,” Ahn said. “We’re just doing things the way it should be done, which is simple, delicious, to the point. Just authentic and real, y’know?”
Before she started Hoagies & Hops in Indianapolis, Mazza didn’t really know other folks there who were from the Philadelphia area, or even from the East Coast. But once she set up shop, “they all came out of the woodwork,” she said.
Now that expats gravitate toward her restaurant, Mazza loves to engage. She sometimes sparks social media debates over Sheetz vs. Wawa, or the best places to go at the Jersey Shore. And Hoagies & Hops encourages customers to come in to watch Philly sports, sometimes even offering discounts to people dressed in appropriate team colors.
“When I have the Eagles games [on], I love when people come in here, and they’re all wearing their Eagles gear, and they start talking,” Mazza said.
Occasionally, skeptics from western Pa. stop by and can be “very judgmental” before they even try the food, Mazza said, but she just shrugs them off. “I mean, I’ve been open for seven years for a reason.”
After all that time, she’s still meeting new folks who hail from her home region and get excited about what the restaurant has to offer.
“I’ve met people who’ve been here for four years, I’ve met people who’ve been here for say, less than a month,” Mazza said. People “just keep finding out.”