Following a playbook usually adopted by out-of-state presidential contenders, Senate candidate Mehmet Oz last week stopped by Cheesesteak Vegas while visiting Philadelphia.
The Republican nominee, who won Pennsylvania’s U.S. Senate primary by a margin so slim it required a recount, and who will face Democrat John Fetterman in November, made sure to hit up both Pat’s and Geno’s.
There was a notable difference between the two pics Oz posted to Twitter showcasing his visit. In one, he stands shoulder to shoulder with Geno Vento, owner of the neon-bedecked shop after which the second-gen proprietor was named. In the other photo, third-gen Pat’s King of Steaks owner Frank Olivieri is nowhere to be seen.
Anyone who missed the significance had it underlined when Pat’s offered a blistering reply.
“Do you even live in Pa? And can you spell the town you live in?” the official @PatsSteaks account tweeted, referencing the narrative that Oz, a heart surgeon best known as a TV celebrity made famous by Oprah, has long lived in New Jersey and only recently moved to Huntingdon Valley — which was misspelled “Huntington” on his official declaration of candidacy.
Pat’s post quickly went viral (as of this writing, it has nearly 23k likes and more than 2,500 retweets). It was boosted not only by Fetterman supporters, but by political pundits who know how influential cheesesteak politics can be.
Geno’s Steaks has long been the choice for Republicans because of the leanings of founder Joey Vento, who bedecked his shop’s walls with police badges and whose dying wish was that the store’s anti-immigrant “Speak English” sign never be removed from the order window.
The other side of the aisle has gravitated toward Pat’s Steaks almost by default. But the originator of the cheesesteak, open since 1930 after a taxi driver helped founder Pat Olivieri come up with the idea to serve frizzled beef on a roll, has been the undoing of unsuspecting politicians.
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In the most famous example of a sandwich deflating a candidate, 2004 Democratic hopeful John Kerry made the faux pas of asking for his cheesesteak with Swiss. It’s unclear how his staff had missed briefing him on the fact that you only get to choose from a “Whiz-American-provolone” trifecta, but after The Inquirer wrote about it, the gaffe — combined with photos of Kerry’s dainty-looking bites — was seized on by national press and helped drive the former senator out of contention.
Since then, candidates have been pretty careful about their orders.
Barack Obama went to Pat’s in 2008 and ordered one with Whiz. In 2016, Democratic presidential contender and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren did the same. Hopeful Republican nominee Scott Walker, then governor of Wisconsin, went to both shops — and caught some flack about asking for his with American cheese (a perfectly acceptable order) as well as scooting to the front of the line.
All this attention led to headlines like the one published by The Economist in fall 2020: “Why the Philly cheesesteak can swing a presidential election.”
Now the sandwich is involved in a Senate race. Dem nominee and current Pa. Lt. Gov. Fetterman is on record as a staunch defender of Philadelphia’s cheesesteak prowess, no matter where it comes from. Two years ago, he got into a heated Twitter battle with the official New Jersey government account after it trolled with a tweet suggesting the best cheesesteaks were from across the river.
Has Fetterman been to Pat’s or Geno’s yet? Unlikely, or at least not since the primary, because he’s been sidelined by a stroke that happened days before the election and is only just now making his way back to the campaign trail.
So far, the @GenosSteaks account has stayed out of the discussion.