How Chickie's & Pete's Crabfries Became A Staple Food Of Philadelphia

What do you think of when you think of Philadelphia foods? If you thought of Philly cheesesteaks, hoagies, and soft pretzels, you'd be correct. But there's one more popular staple of the City of Brotherly Love that you might not have heard of: Crabfries.

Contrary to what the name implies, Crabfries aren't made with seafood; they don't include chunks of crab, and they aren't made of crab meat. Instead, Crabfries are actually crinkle-cut french fries dusted with a combination of "crabby spices," similar to Old Bay seasonings. These fries are then served crispy and hot alongside not ketchup or tartar sauce, but a cup full of creamy, warm white cheese sauce. 

If you're not familiar with Crabfries, or didn't see them in any restaurants the last time you were in Philadelphia, that's because they're only found at one select restaurant chain: Chickie's and Pete's. Although this restaurant brand is relatively small, it's safe to say that it has chiseled out a name for itself in Philly history alongside Rocky and the cheesesteak. In 2018, Philadelphia Magazine voted it as the city's Best Sports Bar, while Eater Philly praised it as the "godfather" of Philly sports bars. 

But what's the story behind Chickie's and Pete's? How did simple french fries become one of the most popular bar foods in the Philadelphia sports bar scene? To answer these questions, you must first go back to the scorching hot summer of 1977 and the purchase of a bar in Philly's Mayfair neighborhood.

Pete Ciarrocchi launched Chickie's and Pete's in 1987

Pete Ciarrocchi's life in the restaurant industry began when his parents, Peter and Henrietta Ciarrocchi, purchased a tavern in Philadelphia's Mayfair neighborhood in 1977. Inspired by years of working in the tavern, where he honed a skill for salesmanship and customer service, the younger Ciarrocchi sought to enter the business on his own — but what to sell?

As the story goes, Ciarrocchi began experimenting with spices left over from the crab season during the summer. He would put combinations of these seasonings on french fries and make careful minute adjustments based on customer feedback. After perfecting the recipe in 1979, he began to sell his Crabfries on the street and at festivals before opening his first restaurant in 1987. But it was in 1998 that Ciarrocchi received the offer to set up a location in Veterans Stadium — then home to the Philadelphia Phillies. Although hesitant at first, the move to Veterans Stadium catapulted Chickie's and Pete's into the public eye, cementing Crabfries as a "sports food" and a Philadelphia exclusive alongside Philly sports teams.

Today, you can find Chickie's and Pete's all across Pennsylvania (including in the Philadelphia airport), New Jersey, and even in Las Vegas. The restaurant has also been praised by the likes of Oprah Winfrey, Jon Bon Jovi, and the Philadelphia Eagles, further exemplifying the status of Crabfries in Philadelphia sports bar cuisine.

Chickie was the nickname of Pete's mother

Learning about Chickie's and Pete's and its Crabfries, you probably asked yourself: "Who's Chickie?" You can obviously see where the "Pete" of Chickie's and Pete's comes from, but who's Chickie and where do they fit into all of this?

As it would turn out, you already met "Chickie" earlier. Chickie was actually the nickname of Henrietta Ciarrocchi, Pete's mother. Henrietta played a key role in helping her son to develop his business, especially after Pete's father Peter died in 1987. Her cooking played such an influential role in Pete's life that, when she passed away a few years later, Pete hired his brother Tom on as a cook because Tom was able to cook uncannily similar to Henrietta. Chickie's and Pete's is more of a homage to Pete's mother and father and their introducing him to the world of restaurants.

The Crabfries recipe is so dear to Pete Ciarrocchi, both because of its popularity and the family history related to it, that you can't serve Crabfries anywhere else without Ciarrocchi's permission. Crabfries are actually a registered trademark owned by Chickie's and Pete's, ensuring that the recipe remains within the family business — and by consequence, it remains something of a Philadelphia secret.