After Philly, the next stop on our trip back east was Scranton. Steamtown. The Electric City. Or as we always call it, home. There’s always something special about going “home”. It just feels right. Even after living out of the city for over 32 years it will always be home.
Scranton has been the punch-line of jokes over the years. The coal-mining town of old suffered declines not unlike many of the other rust-belt cities. But for some reason, Scranton always seems to bounce back and stay relevant. The tough, blue-collar city is a reminder that not everyone wants to live in a big city like Philly, New York or DC, or in rural farming areas. The small city offers a nice mix of big city amenities and small town charm.
It always seems like there’s a connection to Scranton – especially in Politics. Hilary’s ancestors lived in Scranton (and got involved in some early voter fraud back in the 1920s) and did you know that Joe Biden was born in Scranton? 🙂
There was always a tie between Scranton and old Hollywood. Vaudeville performers back in the day used to say “If you can make it in Scranton, you can make it anywhere”, based on the tough-to-judge audiences. In 1982, they filmed “That Championship Season” in Scranton. More recently, Scranton’s notoriety could be attributed to new Hollywood – thanks to the Office. The town is forever memorialized thanks to Michael Scott, Dwight Schrute, and the rest of the crew from Dunder-Miflin.
The city’s Chamber of Commerce and the show’s producers did a fantastic job of incorporating Scranton into the sitcom. Sure there are the very noticeable references to local businesses like Cooper’s Seafood, but there were some very subtle references to the city that only locals would know – like the local radio station stickers on the refrigerator in the break room.
My wife and I were happy to see the Cooper’s references because we hold the restaurant near and dear since it’s where I proposed many years before the Office was even a thought! We just had to stop by for a drink one evening.
When you’re home, it’s always about three things. Food, Friends, and Family (but not necessarily in that order). It seems that there’s never enough time to take in everyone you want to see and everything you want to eat – but we always try to make the most of our time there.
On this trip, we were very limited – arriving late on Thursday and leaving early Monday – with a surprise 50th Wedding Anniversary to attend on Sunday. The good news is that we’d be able to catch up with most of my side of the family during that event.
But let’s start with…
Friday nights in Scranton always mean pizza. It’s a tradition that dates back decades. And it’s not just any pizza. It’s “Old Forge Style” pizza. The pizza made famous by the tiny, largely Italian borough outside of Scranton. There, they make pizza in trays. Not pies. They call them cuts. Not slices. The pizzas are made in a rectangular baking sheet. The dough is light and airy – not thin like traditional NY Style and not thick like Sicilian or Detroit.
The cheese is also a differentiator. It’s usually a blend of cheeses that are difficult to get outside of the region. Most places use Cooper Sharp American and Brick Cheese, a soft, easy melting cheddar cheese. The mix is known to stick to the back of your teeth. That’s when you know it’s true Old Forge pizza.
The sauce is usually pretty basic with just tomatoes and some light olive oil and spices.
Pizza toppings and styles have changed over the years, but I’m a traditionalist and usually stick with what’s called a tray of “red”. Simple pizza with only a cheese topping.
Another style that’s somewhat unique to the area is their “double-crust white” pizza. Not to be confused with a Calzone, this pizza is the same dough as the red, and cooked in the same rectangular fashion and it’s stuffed with the same blend of cheese – with most places adding mozzarella to the mix. But there’s no sauce. The top layer of the dough is usually coated in olive oil, dusted with some basic Italian spices, then topped with rosemary. Some places add slivers of onion to the top as well.
One fairly popular option that we always add to the interior is broccoli. Hey, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it.
A new style that’s gaining in popularity around Scranton is what’s called “Pan-Fried Sicilian”. I’d describe it as a cross between Old Forge, Sicilian and Detroit – with the light airy dough being a bit thicker. It has a super crispy crunchy bottom due to the pan-frying technique in a deeper pan – not the dense, bready dough that’s usually found in Sicilian-style and much lighter and airier than Detroit.
Cosmo’s on Oak has taken this pizza style to a whole new level with his innovative combinations. Sure, I’m a traditionalist – when it comes to Old Forge-style, but Cosmo expanded my taste buds with this pizza.
On our visit to Cosmo’s, which happened to be the location of the Anniversary party, Cosmo put out a buffet of pizzas for us to try. Every one was better than the previous. From the basic red to a sweet sauce red. From the General Cosmo (his take on the sweet and spicy General Tso) to Bacon, Bourbon and Blue. This pizza was fantastic.
I couldn’t eat it fast enough. Then I realized that I needed to save room for each one – so I started to cut the pieces in half. That allowed me to try the Sweet Garlic, the Cheesesteak, the Buffalo Chicken, and the double crust White. Each one was unlike anything I’ve ever had. Somehow he fries the shell perfectly without it being too greasy. Each flavor combination popped with the right amount of balance between dough, sauce and toppings. Absolute perfection.
I realize that food preferences are highly subjective and not everyone has the same taste. Naysayers will “poo-poo” this and say it’s not true pizza. So what?!? If you’re looking for the best NY or Chicago Style pizza, don’t come here. Go to NY or Chicago. If you’re looking for a whole new experience in pizza, check out Cosmo’s (or try to find pan-fried Sicilian near you).
Now, If I can get him to franchise west!
While we didn’t have the time to fill up on another local treat, the Texas Wiener, you can’t go too far around the city without running into diners and restaurants that showcase the spicy dog. I’m intrigued by this regional specialty so I’ll likely be diving into the origin and history in another post. The Texas Wiener is similar to a Chili Dog, but different. Many places around the country lay claim to the origin – like Coney Island, Detroit, Altoona, Paterson, and Scranton. But the Texas Wiener is a staple in Scranton food scene.
Just down the street from the Keystone Restaurant and catty-corner from the West Side Diner is Catalano’s. The local grocery store/importer/market/deli has been serving customers since about 1924.
We always make a stop in to pick up two things – or three if it’s the summer.
- Hoagies. Not subs or grinders or heroes. Hoagies. The Italian specialty market offers up some of the best hoagies you’ll ever have. While you can get the hoagie customized, the vast majority pop in and grab the pre-made ones on the counter. They have two options ready to go – sweet peppers or hot peppers. The simple combination of a great Roscioli’s bakery roll, Italian meats and cheeses topped with a combination of oil and seasoning and the aforementioned pepper choice. Add a bag of Middleswarth potato chips and it’s tough to beat this lunch.
- Italian Cookies. They offer a wide selection of Italian leaf cookies that they import from Long Island. We always take a pound to go, but they never seem to last the complete journey back to Phoenix.
- Italian Lemon Ice in the summer. It’s the absolute best, most refreshing lemon ice you’ll ever have. The ice is so fine and light it quickly melts in your mouth leaving the fresh lemon flavor. Delicious.
Catalano’s recently had a mural painted on the side of their building honoring former Penn State and NFL QB Matt McGloin. Matt is the “scrappy kid from Scranton” that made his way from walk-on at Penn State to record-holder at the school. The undrafted QB fought his way onto the Raiders roster and started 7 games.
Matt’s parents used to own a florist shop a few doors up from Catalano’s. Before moving to this location, their shop was just a few doors away from my parents home and they were friends – as the McGloins were with everyone in West Side. I remember walking into the shop with my siblings to buy flowers for my mother’s funeral in 2009. On the wall hung a poster of Matt, a freshman, in his PSU uniform. I commented on the poster and Paul, Matt’s father, said, “he’s going to start for Penn State some day.” I recall that I wasn’t as optimistic. But boy, was I wrong.
Dunmore Candy Kitchen
I don’t know if every city was like Scranton when I was growing up, but we had a small candy store in the our neighborhood of West Side. Williams’ Candy was a small family owned shop that made chocolate molds out of their home on Lafayette St. During holiday seasons you could smell the chocolate from blocks away.
As kids, we’d get our share of more commercial candy like Hershey’s or Reese’s, but it was the Williams’ molds that everyone really wanted. Easter baskets would be full of jelly beans and foil eggs hidden in the plastic straw grass, but on top of that grass were molds of small bunnies, crosses, hollow eggs filled with more candy, and your other favorite things. For me it was usually a baseball player or race car.
Williams’ sold their business many years ago and essentially merged with Dunmore Candy Kitchen. Today, we carry on that Easter tradition by having a box of candy shipped to us every year. Of course, Easter isn’t the only time to have chocolate so we stop by whenever we’re back to pick up some of their other treats – like chocolate covered pretzels, chocolate covered coconut patties, peanut butter cups, caramels and so much more.
French Fries and Gravy
Another local specialty is French Fries and Gravy. Somehow, Canada gets praise for Poutine, but Scranton gets dissed for their dish. Again I say, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it. After all, French fries are just potatoes, right? And you put gravy on your potatoes, right? I don’t understand why this isn’t more of a thing across the country.
Small diners around the city are known for their fries and gravy and the Glider Diner sets the bar for their hot roast beef sandwiches – two pieces of white bread with sliced roast beef in the middle, then smothered in gravy, pouring onto the fries.
Manning’s Farm Dairy
A special treat growing up was a Sunday ride to the country to grab an ice-cream fresh from the dairy. Back then, that was the only place you could pick up a Manning’s cone. Today, they have several stores around the area, but there’s nothing like smelling the ice cream being made (if you know what I mean) – with the cows literally in the building next to the store. It remains a special treat.
There are just so many unique eats and treats in Scranton – and I’m sure every home town. Phoenix is full of top-notch restaurants and has its share of celebrity chefs, but I’ll take any of the above dishes over some fancy-schmancy dinner any day of the week.
If you’re lucky, you have a childhood friend or two that become life-long friends. Sure, distance tests the relationships but some friendships last a lifetime. Others fade with time (and life) as we grow apart.
Some of your friends might have been classmates. We swung by our high schools to rekindle some memories and to remind our kids where we grew up and went to school. It’s great to see these building standing tall even after almost 40 years later we left them behind.
I’ll admit, school wasn’t my favorite thing to do growing up, but there were some teachers that made an impact on me. Nick Petula of West Scranton Sr. High taught a semester on local history. I still have the mimeographed handouts he provided 40+ years ago. I truly believe that his class inspired me to love the history of Scranton. When researching for a post I did on the Black Hand of Bull’s Head, Nick’s work showed up again. I’m glad that he continued to preserve the legacy of Scranton through his many books on the subject.
We finally got to experience a night with some friends at the Tiki Bar on the East Mountain. The Tiki Bar is a seasonal bar setup that is part of the Waldorf Social Club – a private, dues-paying social club. The Club was originally established in 1906 by the German-American Federation. The GAF planned to build a clubhouse on the property in 1914 but plans were interrupted by the first World War. It took 25 years, but eventually, the GAF finished the project in 1939 and the building still stands today. Coincidentally, we were hosted by the granddaughter of the President of that Building Committee.
The Tiki Bar is tucked away in a wooded area on the side of a mountain that overlooks the city. The night we were there, we were among hundreds of others enjoying a night outdoors and listening to live music. It’s an older, more mellow crowd so I don’t think it ever gets too rowdy. It’s just a bunch of friends having a great time and listening to great music.
Amazingly, they still celebrate their German-American heritage with an picnic – this year being the 115th Annual!
And finally, the real reason for the trip. My brother and sister-in-law celebrated an amazing 50 year wedding anniversary. Their kids threw a surprise party and we showed up as an added surprise to most of the rest of the family. It’s always hard to squeeze so much into to such a short visit but the timing of this trip complicated matters even more so. We only got to spend the afternoon with them but it’s always awesome to catch up in person.
A trip back home always ends too soon. We always have to made trade-offs. On this trip, I didn’t get to see all of my brothers, sisters, in-laws, nieces and nephews, aunts and uncles. We didn’t get to eat all of the food that we normally do. We didn’t get see all of the friends that we like to see. I guess that just means we’ll have to visit again.
Oh, and one thing that we did do was bring a little bit of home back on the plane with us…