The Pizza Chase: Phillippi’s, Home of the “Birdville Pie”

one slice pizza on paper plate with table setting

You could even say it glows: one cut of “Birdville Pie” (only slight color exaggeration)

American cheese, it is said, is neither American, nor cheese. Some would also have us believe that this most maligned of processed foods has no place on that other great American culinary institution, the pizza pie. Those folks, however, don’t live in Birdville, and they don’t get their pizza at Phillippi’s.

excited diners look with anticipation of their "Birdville Pie"

Excited diners can’t wait to dig in to their “Birdville Pie”

We don’t actually know for sure what that gooey stuff is on top of the Birdville Pie–Phillippi’s is famously tight-lipped about the “special blend of Birdville cheeses” they use. But between the radioactive aura it gives off and the weird molar-coating mouth feel, it’s pretty obvious that American cheese is the dominant sibling of this particular nuclear family.

The pizza at Phillippi’s has one other major distinguishing factor. The crust is as wafer-thin as this eater has ever experienced. It puts the pie clearly in the camp of a meal that eats like a snack, or an appetizer, or, as one of our party derisively put it, “like a Lunchable.” Not that anyone left hungry, it just had the overall feeling of one big (processed) cheese and cracker.

exterior of Phillippi's Family Dining and Pizzeria, Natrona Heights, PA

Phillippi’s Family Dining and Pizzeria, Home of the “Birdville Pie”, Natrona Heights

To call eating a Birdville Pie pleasurable is a stretch. The pizza is an acquired taste of the highest (or lowest) degree, but it’s clear the locals love it. The restaurant’s tag line “Home of the Birdville Pie” is printed proudly across the front awning, on every menu, and the masthead to the web site. The Birdville Pie and its sister White Birdville Pie (no sauce, but the same great cheese blend) (come to think of it, wouldn’t that make this an “orange pizza”?) (ah, heck, go with it–we’re in Birdville!) appear at the top of the restaurant’s short pizza list. We can attest that every group around us in the filled dining room was enjoying at least one the famous pizzas at their table. [Explanations for why the uninitiated baby at the next table kept screaming are pure conjecture.]

Phillippi's "Birdville Pie" with banana peppers and bacon

Phillippi’s “Birdville Pie” (here with banana peppers and bacon)

Someone at Phillippi’s really cares about local history. The walls of the Dining room are covered with great black and white photographs of Natrona Heights through the years. The restaurant’s web site has an extensive history–not of Phillippi’s (which is only mentioned in passing) or its namesake pizza pie (ditto)–but of Birdville, Pennsylvania.

This time-is-money blogger will admit he didn’t read the whole thing, (to give you a sense of scale, there are forty-two footnotes) but we can tell you it goes from Frenchman Rene Robert Cavalier de la Salle fording the Allegheny River in 1670 to Rachel Carson and Silent Spring in 1962, and just about everything along the way.

The key fact seems to be that one Richard Bird, “a carpenter born in 1851 in Shropshire, England” purchased a big chunk of what is now Natrona Heights/Harrison Township in the late 1800s. Thereafter, though never an official designation, the locals have referred to the area as “Birdville.”

sign for Phillippi's Family Dining and Pizzeria, Natrona Heights, PA

As generally happens with American cheese-related stories, this one is not without controversy. Any discussion of Phillippi’s and their unique pizza recipe would be incomplete without a mention of their cross-river rival and the authenticity of the Birdville Pie. This is something, we can assure you, that is as contested as the house of Romanov. That, however, must wait for another day, when the Orbit staff have had an opportunity to get the other side of this particular tale. As Dee Snider and the gang said so aptly, stay hungry.

[Editor’s note: we did indeed follow up with a visit to Phillippi’s “cross-river rival” in October, 2016. Check it out in The Pizza Chase: P&M Pizza, Arnold]

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