No other eatery that I’ve written about has left me with more conflicted feelings than Cafe Carmela of Northeast Philadelphia. It’s not a stretch to call it one of my favorite restaurants in the area in an overall sense. In addition to the food being at a higher level than you’ll find at most places that serve pizza and cheesesteaks, the atmosphere is tasteful and welcoming, while the service is both friendly and efficient.
Yet I wound up leaving them off of both my Top 10 cheesesteaks and Top 5 pizzas lists for very subjective reasons. While the ingredients of both the steaks and pizzas I had there were top notch, the balances between the cheese and meat in the former and cheese and sauce in the latter were not to my taste.
I’ve written multiple times about my preference for being able to taste and feel the cheese on my steaks without there being so much that it overwhelms the meat. And that’s what I thought happened, especially with the second cheesesteak I had at Cafe Carmela. In the case of the pizza, the issue was the cheese being drowned out by puddles of sauce.
To deal with the latter situation, I wanted to return and try a pie they call The Maggs, which is a combination of their regular pizza and a Margherita. In the photos I’ve seen of it, there appeared to be a better balance between the sauce and cheese.
I wasn’t sure I would give their cheesesteak another try until it recently won the annual tournament held by Jim Pappas, who runs Philadelphia Cheesesteak Adventure. That was enough inspiration for me to see if I was being unreasonable by leaving this steak out of my top ten.
So I met my friends, brothers George and Mike, at Cafe Carmela for lunch Wednesday to settle the matter.
This place was already popular, and winning that tournament couldn’t have hurt their business. We arrived a few minutes after they opened at Noon and it was already about half full. Before long, it was packed.
The brothers kindly volunteered to follow my lead as far as ordering. We aren’t huge eaters and agreed to split a steak with Cooper Sharp cheese and fried onions, as well as a “Maggs” pizza three ways.
We also had what is unquestionably the best fried Mozzarella I’ve ever eaten. I had ordered it during my first visit as well. The difference between this freshly-made version and the sticks most pizzerias serve is like night and day.
The cheesesteak arrived just as we were finishing the fried Mozzarella. They kindly agreed to cut it into thirds. It’s a fairly hefty sandwich, but one piece – the one in the center – had a disproportionate amount of the meat, cheese and onions mix.
We were seated next to a window. Unfortunately, the sun and shadows impacted most of my photos.
Cafe Carmela uses seeded rolls from Carangi Bakery of South Philly. They’re used by several of the highly rated steak purveyors I’ve written about and are excellent. It’s a sturdy roll with a good crust.
Yet I had the same issue as before with the proportion of cheese to meat. For me, there was too much Cooper Sharp. It overshadowed the beef’s flavor and texture.
Again, this is very much a matter of personal taste. In no way am I saying Cafe Carmela serves bad steaks. I fully understand why so many people love them. In fact, you can count both George and Mike among that group. Neither of them agreed with me that there was too much cheese. But I prefer the beef to be front-and-center with the cheese as more of a supporting addition.
Here are a couple shots that give you a better look at what I’m referring to.
The pizza was next up, and the change from ordering a regular or upside-down pie to “The Maggs” did the trick. The sauce to cheese ratio was significantly improved. I don’t think there is any doubt that it would have made my list of the best pizzas I had on the cheesesteak trail had I tried it soon enough. I’ll have to revisit that at some point and add this outstanding pie.
As was the case with the other two pizzas I ate there, the crust was fantastic. It met at the intersection of crispy and chewy; a feat that not many pizzerias are able to achieve this well.
In addition to the amount of it being more to my liking, the sauce had a wonderful flavor with a hint of sweetness, while the fresh Mozzarella benefited the pie’s texture.
I’d eat lunch at Cafe Carmela frequently if I lived closer. As it is, I’ll be back whenever I get the opportunity to enjoy more pizza and fried Mozzarella. They also have a selection of homemade pastas that I intend to sample at some point – probably my next visit. I’ve probably given a final shot to the cheesesteak. But you shouldn’t let that hold you back, especially if you’re a cheese-lover.
I’ll be back tomorrow with a year-end post on the best things I ate during 2022.
5 thoughts on “Returning to a Northeast Philly Standout”
The cheese steak did look heavy on the cheese but that pizza looked divine!
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Send some of that fried mozzarella my way! I can’t tell for sure, but it almost looks like it was covered with a fairly coarse breading instead of a batter.
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I think you’re right.
Great post! And that fried mozzarella does look so much better than the usual
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