Harry Olivieri, The Man Wit' A Steak in His City

By Anita Huslin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 22, 2006

If the character of a place is best explained by its food, then Harry Olivieri's cheese steak made it pretty simple to understand Philadelphia: You got your one wit', two wit' or your cheese wit'.

That would be one steak with onions, two steaks with onions or one cheese steak with onions. The cheese being of the Whiz variety.

This is all you really had to know to enjoy the iconic delicacy of the city. Didn't have to be any more complicated than that, something that John Kerry learned when he went to Pat's King of Steaks once and ordered one . . . with Swiss .

You don't want Swiss, he was informed. Cheez Whiz . (Bill Clinton and Al Gore somehow knew that when they came to visit.)

In the 76 years since he first slung a slab of beef on his hot dog stand and grilled up dinner for his brother, Pat, and himself, Harry Olivieri gave Philadelphians something to drool over.

Thinly sliced eye roll, sauteed in oil and slipped into a fresh torpedo roll, now slathered with your choice of toppings and condiments: onions (raw or grilled), mushrooms, hot peppers, catsup, mustard and relish. Slightly greasy, generously beefy and with an unapologetic sense of dietary balance, it has evolved from the working man's dinner into the tourist's delicacy.

"If you really sit down and think about it you have protein in the meat, carbs in the bread, dairy with the cheese, and onions, peppers and mushrooms -- your vegetables," says Maria Olivieri, Harry's daughter, and the proprietor of the business he left behind. He was 90 when he died Thursday in Atlantic City, where he was getting ready to launch a new string of franchises. He had suffered from heart disease since 1972.

"As long as you're not eating them every day, every hour, that's quite a healthy combination," she says.

Her father -- tired of eating hot dogs at the stand he ran with his brother -- made his first cheese steak one night after he bought a pound of beef for 7 cents and fried it up with some onions. A regular customer, a cab driver stopping for dinner in the middle of his shift, came by for his usual hot dog and smelled the fresh beef sandwich.

"I don't want a hot dog, I want that," he supposedly said.

"That's my dinner," Harry Olivieri replied.

The cab driver insisted, and so Harry and Pat sold it to him for 25 cents.

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