Top 5 Eats near Altoona, PA
Altoona, or even small town Pennsylvania in general, may not be on every traveler’s bucket list of places to see; but, if there is anything to be learned from Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives, there are many culinary experiences well worth a try hiding in small town America. Experiential Travel 101 and spokesmen like Anthony Bourdain swear that in order to fully understand a region, you must eat like the locals. Even though I’ve never personally been a resident of the Altoona region, I still consider myself to be somewhat in-the-know when it comes to the local eats. With both of my parents originally from the area, every trip back to visit relatives became an opportunity for them to educate my brothers and I on all of the favorite hometown eateries they had growing up.
Although this may be disguised as a travel post, it undoubtedly also doubles as another unexpected legacy post. The entire reason for taking a recent trip back to PA was so that my husband and I could attend a celebration of life for my grandma after she suddenly passed away. Yet again, the opportunity for travel presented me with time for reflection on the legacies left behind from a grandparent. However, this time, the decision of which legacy to write about was a lot tougher because in the case of my grandma there were a lot of contenders: genetically, there’s our strong chin, the inherited family obsession with the Pittsburgh Penguins, or maybe the lessons in probability she taught me while watching The Price is Right. What initially seemed like a daunting task became obvious during a stop at my parent’s house to tend to the dog for them while they were taking care of funeral arrangements in PA. In that lightbulb moment, I realized Grammy’s legacy is a candy jar.
Soon after hearing about Grammy’s passing, I made a pitstop at my parent’s house to help feed and take care of our aging family dog. Instinctually, right after walking through the door, I made my way into the kitchen stopping at the candy jar, noticing my mom had recently refilled the it with her traditional fall candy corn/caramel combination. While taking comfort in taste of home, it hit me; the candy jar is actually Grammy’s legacy. My mom inherited the candy jar idea from her years ago, and quite strategically I might add. Visits to Grammy’s house always meant unlimited access to candy, and as a kid who was always up against people trying to limit sugar intake in youth (even back then), this was always something to get excited about. Grammy firmly believed that every home should have a jar full of candy, and not just because candy makes the world taste good, but also because it was a welcoming gesture that reminded all family members that they were home. Long before the Double Tree’s warm cookie upon check-in, Grammy saw the impact that comfort food could have on making everyone feel at home.
The candy jar wasn’t the only way Grammy defined her home base. On our visits back to PA, I always remember my dad just walking in the front door, no knocking or ringing the bell first, those were actions reserved only for guests. It was the open door policy Grammy insisted on, a reminder that no matter how far you may roam, you are always welcome back home. Although never inclined to turn down the opportunity to travel, Grammy knew the importance of also establishing that home base. She and my Grandpa were always up to the challenge of adventuring out to see us no matter what state we were currently calling home, or would take trips on their own to see different parts of the country. And despite all of these experiences, home base never changed because such a place gave the family a spot gather and Grammy knew that was the glue needed to keep us all together. Now that I’m the adult coming back home to my parent’s house, I see this viewpoint as a legacy adopted by my mom, since many of the comforts that I now feel in their house mimic the comforts of Grammy’s: an abundant supply of candy, food and drink offered minutes upon entry, and an expectation to make yourself at home.
Finally, this brings me back to the reason for this type of post. Many of Grammy’s comforts of home were in the form of food, so what better way to celebrate this legacy than with a post about the hometown favorites, many of which she introduced me to long ago. So, influenced by some of my favorite locals, here are my 5 top classic Altoona area eats:
One of my favorite memories of Gardner’s Candy occurred during an Easter visit to Pennsylvania to spend the holiday with relatives. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I know it was still young enough to get overly excited about the basket of goodies that were waiting for me that morning. Peaking down the stairs, I started salivating like a cartoon character at the sight of the familiar pink, purple, and green patterned basket on top of Grammy’s dining room table. The traditional reaction came to a halt when I noticed that one item of particular importance seemed to be missing. My solid white chocolate bunny was nowhere to be seen. Hoping that the mix up was just an unfortunate consequence of my vantage point, at my parents signal, I made a mad dash towards my basket to investigate. Peering down into the basket, there was no sign of my traditional chocolate bunny, however, in its place was a large chocolate egg with my name on it (literally). The egg was no ordinary chocolate egg, it marked the beginning of a new family tradition since it was my very first Gardner’s Peanut butter Meltaway chocolate egg. Growing up on Gardner’s Candy themselves, my parents knew that taking a trip back to Pennsylvania during Easter time presented the perfect opportunity to introduce their children to this unique holiday staple. To mark the special occasion, my mom even paid extra to have them decorate each of the eggs in icing with our names. I may have outgrown getting an Easter basket (or so they say, I’m pretty sure such a thing is impossible), but luckily with help from the internet, my mom is still able to give all three adult children an egg for Easter each year.
While recently passing through Tyrone, my husband and I couldn’t resist the urge to branch out and try some of Gardner’s other Peanut Butter Meltaway concoctions. Gardner’s Candy just seemed like the perfect choice for dessert considering we were on a trip celebrating the life and legacy of the grandmother who I shared my first Gardner’s egg experience with. In the effort to relive a favorite old memory, I was able to make a new one watching the joy sweep over my husband’s face in the same way Grammy had watched it sweep over mine. Even though it may not have actually been Easter this time (although the Deacon claimed during the funeral that in a way, it sort of was) and Grammy wasn’t there to share in this new memory with us, in a way, it still felt like she was.
On casual evenings spent catching up with relatives on visits back to PA, Texas Hotdogs have always been a staple. For proximity reasons, it always made sense that my parents try to plan their hotdog fix while visiting members of my dad’s side of the family. In all the states we’d lived in, my parents had never managed to find an adequate replacement. The unique taste is one that I now find myself craving from time to time, but know there is no remedy for like the original. Since the entertainment for this competitive side of the family always involved a game at home, Texas Hotdogs made the perfect pairing. Whether we were all gathered around the TV cheering on the Penguins or learning how to strategically destroy each other in various board or card games, Texas Hotdogs To-Go completed the picture of our Pennsylvanian home base.
Forgive me if I get any of this wrong, but it is my understand a local school rivalry exists between Tyrone and Bellwood Antis. My mom’s alma mater was Tyrone, and my dad’s Bellwood Antis. It should come as no surprise to locals that I was introduced to East End Pizza mainly through my mom’s side of the family. Applebee’s may pride itself on being a neighborhood restaurant, but it has nothing on a this literal hole in the wall community staple. Although I’d eaten East End hoagies several times prior to this recent trip, I’d never actually been in the building. Walking in, I didn’t initially feel welcome. There was an uncomfortableness to having everyone look at you wondering what planet you come from since this is the type of town where everyone knows everyone, but these are the hidden gems of travel. Eating where the locals eat is crucial, even if it means feeling slightly awkward throughout the experience. Not knowing how to order a hoagie using the appropriate lingo, like we experienced, will be a dead giveaway that you are not a local. In my defense, the hoagies had always ordered in large quantities and brought back to family gatherings for all to share, so I’d never really been given the option. During this visit I learned that Green is the way to go, and don’t forget your Middleswarth potato chips (another regional staple).
My first experience with Delgrosso sauce was when having goulash at Grammy’s. When time didn’t allow for homemade sauce, Delgrosso’s was the only acceptable substitute. In the days before the internet, my parents would stock up on the sauce during visits back to PA. Nowadays, you can get the sauce just about anywhere. My MI audience members can pick up a jar at the local Meijer. The Delgrosso story is one that every local knows in much greater detail than what can be found on the website. The entire Delgrosso family are treated as celebrities whose latest happenings were typically reported as news rather than gossip when catching up with family. Delgrosso foods further secured its place in the community by purchasing the local amusement park. This amusement park employed both of my parents as teenagers, and was the reason they ever met. The definition of family owned and operated, Delgrosso foods is crucial to the locals, and even to this non-local. Without this business, who knows if I’d even exist.
I will never forget the first time I had ice cream from the Penn State Berkey Creamery because it was also the only time I’ve ever had it, but that hasn’t stopped the experienced from setting the standard for all the other ice cream I’ve tried since. To this day, I can say with confidence, that although I’ve had some great strawberry ice cream, none has ever superseded the bar set by the first Berkey Creamery cone I had while touring my mom’s alma mater. I feel a massive amount of guilt for not disclosing this information to my husband during our most recent visit. Ice cream is his vice, Kryptonite, and possibly even his true soul mate. I thought about strategically sharing this memory with him while we were on the road so that later on I could let him think that he had the brilliant idea to stop there when we passed through. Unfortunately, both time and diet concerns stopped me. In an effort to make amends, I’m sharing it with the world now, and as far as my husband is concerned, ice cream is always better in the summer. We now have an excuse to plan another trip back (no one tell him it can be ordered online).
I can’t write an entire post and neglect the educational component to Destination Legacy, so here’s how to learn about the 12-step ice cream making process.
So if you ever find yourself passing through the area, don’t miss the opportunity to try some local favorites. I’m grateful for Grammy’s home base, which allowed me to share these experiences with my family and you, just like she did with me.