Matt Schillizzi: Food and fun for everyone

Matt Schillizzi headshot

To eat is a necessity, but to eat intelligently is an art.” – François de La Rochefoucauld

If anyone has made the act of enjoying food an art form in Philadelphia, it’s the good folks at City Food Tours. The top-rated attraction has built a reputation by sharing the unique and delicious flavors of Philadelphia’s vibrant food culture with tourists and locals alike. We took a moment between bites to talk to owner Matt Schillizzi. 

Are you a Philly native?
Actually, no. I’m from North Jersey. But I’ve been in Philly for 15 years now. I originally came here to go to Temple University and I was not used to being in a city. Even though I’m from North Jersey, we didn’t go into New York a lot growing up. So when I first came to Philadelphia, I hated it. I was scared. Philly was known for its grit, and the Temple campus was just so different from what I was used to. But over time, I started to love Philadelphia. And I feel like some of the reasons why I love it now are some of the reasons why I was scared of it in the beginning. Now, I couldn’t imagine leaving Philadelphia or calling anywhere else home.

Tell me a little bit about your family.
I have a brother. He’s three years older than I am. He’s married and has two children: Cody, who is eight and Brooke, who is five. They’re a lot of fun. Since they’re relatively close, I’m able to see my family about once a month. Either I go up to North Jersey, or sometimes they come down to visit. I was fortunate to be very close with my family growing up. To this day, I call my mom almost every single day, so we’re very much in-the-know with what’s going on in each other’s lives. But for me, coming to Philly was like that Goldilocks distance. It was far enough away from home, but not so far that I felt isolated. I also kept in touch with a lot of friends from high school who I’m still very, very close with today, but I also wanted to meet new people and start fresh at college. 

What did your folks do?
My dad drove tractor trailers for UPS. And my mom was a state licensed social worker for the state of New Jersey. My brother does HVAC work. My career path was a little bit different from everyone else. I worked in higher education for almost my entire career. My brother and I are so different from one another. He’s much more of the macho man — good at handiwork and building things. He’s finishing a shed right now. My dad built cars and things. I was the musical one. I was always practicing my instrument and traveling around for musical performances or shows. I was involved with some sports growing up, but they weren’t usually team sports. I did karate and track where my brother played baseball, basketball and football. 

Tell me more about those extra currics. What did you play, etc.?
I played the xylophone. I did karate for 6 or 7 years and I got up to second-degree brown belt, but black belt was about two years away. It was a long process. In track, I did pole vaulting. I chose pole vault because a bunch of my friends were doing track and I wanted to be on the team but I didn’t want to run a lot.

Wow! Pole vaulting! What’s the scariest thing about that? Because it looks terrifying.
It isn’t just one thing. I mean, I remember the first time. You’re holding a pole and they tell you to run as fast as you can towards the mat and plant the pole into the little pit. But then you have to learn how to not only just pull yourself up, but to lean backwards when you do that, and flip your legs up. The scariest part is flipping your legs up above your head and trusting that if you lean far back enough, which you don’t naturally want to do, you’ll spring up even higher.

OK, more power to you. What was your major at Temple?
My undergrad was in music. I knew I wanted to work in higher education for my career and I was lucky enough to get a job right after I graduated at Temple’s Boyer College of Music and Dance, doing event management and planning. It was the ideal job as I started my career, and I worked there for about six years. It was during that time that I jumped into going for my master’s degree. Then I transferred over to work at Temple’s School of Dentistry for about three years. I wanted my career to be in higher education. So taking myself away from music was a new opportunity but still a part of the university at the dental school.

And you have a great smile!
[Laughing] Thank you! People would ask if that was a job requirement! And then during that time, I got my project management certification as well. My next job was working at Rutgers University in Camden in the chancellor’s office doing special projects and institutional initiatives for the university. I did that for a year. 

So were you a foodie growing up?
Growing up? No, I can’t say that. I mean, sometimes I hear people say that their mom or their dad cooked all these great meals growing up, and I can’t say we did that. My family does not have a great cooking history. I started becoming a foodie during college. It came from being on a campus that was flooded with food trucks with all different types of food. In my sophomore year, I made it my goal to try all the trucks on campus. It was my way of starting to explore because before I went to college, I can count on one hand how many times I’d had Asian cuisine. I’d never had Indian food, definitely [never had] African cuisine. So I wanted to explore, especially on a diverse campus like Temple and Philadelphia as a whole. 

And I’m the kind of foodie who is not that great at cooking. I am not the kind of person that can eat something and dissect it and tell you all the flavors and seasoning that are in it. But I’m the kind of foodie that looks at food as something fun and as an experience that can bring people together. And so when I go out to eat, everything matters, the service, the ambiance, the overall experience, the presentation of it, of course, the quality matters too, but so does the company. 

The funny thing is I have a friend from high school who came to visit when I was in college, and we did a food tour in Philadelphia together — just something to do. I remember her saying, “Matt, I can see you doing this as a job.” I think that planted a seed in my mind. Once I finished my master’s degree and got settled in my new job, I was like, “All right, let me try something new.” I emailed the companies doing tours and the timing worked out right. They were looking for someone. So it was an adjacent way to becoming a foodie.

Well, you’ll laugh. I do food critiques for the paper sometimes, and I also can’t cook. They’ve turned out well because I think I’m a pretty decent writer and I definitely enjoy a good meal and interesting ambience. But my friends would tease me at first because of my lack of culinary skills.
I understand. I remember the first time I ever gave a food tour, I almost felt like an imposter. I’m thinking, who are these people on the tour? They’ve probably been around Philadelphia more than I have. But I had the information and I knew what to say. And I was able to deliver a great experience. Over time, you build on that and that instills the desire for more exploration to become attuned to the cuisine and the experience you deliver. 

For someone who doesn’t know the company, give a description of what you do.
We give nomadic culinary experiences. We want to bring people and food together. We’re not just going to one restaurant and grabbing a meal. We want to give people an array of Philadelphia’s flavors. Whether that’s the traditional foods that you think of — cheesesteaks, tomato pie, pretzels, and water ice, or something more elevated, for example, some of the James Beard Award-winning restaurants in Philadelphia or possibly something that’s still to be discovered. We do a lot of tours that bring people off the beaten path, to show them the mom and pop places that even locals just walk right by and don’t even notice are there. We like to do an immersive experience, whether it’s something hands on, or maybe the chef comes out and gives a demonstration. We want our tours to be something memorable and beyond that we want to be ambassadors for Philadelphia.

I’m very fortunate. I have an awesome team of 10 tour guides. They’re so proud to represent our city and they do a phenomenal job. They love to talk about their personal backstories so you’re able to really connect with the people giving our tours. In addition to our fantastic event guides, we work closely with the restaurateurs and the chefs. They love welcoming our groups. And, what’s nice is that they’re able to prioritize our reservations and logistics and whatnot. It also gives them a chance to step away from the daily grind. If they’re back in the kitchen, or they’re handling the front of house all the time, this gives them an opportunity to talk to the guests and to leave a lasting impression. We want to engage them. We want them to share their stories and to talk about what it means to be part of Philadelphia’s food identity.

What are two secret little finds that you like?
Oh, there’s so many. One secret client — I will say — is called Porcini. It’s a small little Italian place in Rittenhouse Square. It’s one of these places. I mean, there’s so many fantastic places in Philadelphia. There’s no way we can acknowledge everyone. A lot of the places that we do include typically get a lot of attention, they’re already well known. But Porcini is one that right as you walk in, you can tell it is a small family operation. It’s an almost residential block in Rittenhouse and it feels so quaint. Everything is made fresh on site and it is a BYOB! When you walk in, they really make you feel like you’re family. They immediately greet you and they might even sing to you. 

The other one is called Apricot Stone. It’s an Armenian restaurant up in Northern Liberties. Their food is phenomenal. If you go, you have to get the Manti ground beef dumplings served in chicken broth with garlic yogurt and sumac. In addition to tours, I’ve brought friends and family there too and everyone raves about the Manti, but they have many other delicious dishes as well. It’s also a small family shop. I know the owner, Chef Fimy. She and her son run it together. They’ve even opened their doors when the restaurant wasn’t open because they just want us to come in and really feel like we belong there. 

I’m sure you get people from all over. What’s the farthest they’ve come from?
Oh, yeah, we get tourists regularly from other countries. Today, I had somebody from South Africa on my tour. Tomorrow, we have six influencers who are visiting from India that the CVB brought to Philly, and they’re coming on our historical tour. What makes us so proud of being food liaisons for Philadelphia is that we know that our reach is worldwide. That the impression we give people of our city, of our food, helps them get a better understanding of Philadelphia and our food scene. They have a great time and they go back home to their home country and talk about what Philadelphia is all about, and the diversity that we have here. It’s really wonderful.

Yeah, that’s amazing. What’s one of the hardest things—other than COVID—that you’ve had to deal with?
I would say, learning when to unplug. I’ve worked for the company for six years, but it’s been my company for a year and a half and this is my only job now. I still don’t consider it work. So right when I wake up, I’m on the computer. Sometimes I have to go out and give a tour for myself. It’s not too often, usually my other guides handle most of it but I jump in when needed. And then I come back home and I’m working again. I’m sure a lot of business owners would agree, there’s always a lot more that we want to do. I feel guilty when I take a day off, or even take a few hours off knowing there’s always more to do. So I have to remind myself to take time off to recharge. 

Back to the personal, what was an early sign that you were gay?
[Laughing] I’ll try to keep this PG. I’ve known my whole life. I remember when I was in kindergarten, there was a boy that kissed another boy. The whole class was talking about it. And I remember I was kind of jealous that I not only wasn’t part of it, but that I didn’t see it either! I mean of course I didn’t think about sexuality. I knew that I was expected to be with a woman because I was a guy, but I always knew I was attracted to boys. And I always was more friendly with girls, if you want to take that as a sign of being gay! It’s funny, looking back, as a kid I was very outgoing, rambunctious in a fun way. I felt like I had nothing holding me back as a kid. And then, maybe around like the sixth grade or so when I realized that I might be gay but I hadn’t yet accepted it with myself, my personality became much more subdued. I felt like I was holding myself back. And so middle school and most of high school, my personality was definitely more reserved.

I assume the family had no problems.
Not at all. I am so fortunate that even when my grandparents were alive, they were so welcoming to me and to any past boyfriends that they met. When I came out to my parents, I wasn’t nervous because I thought they were not going to accept me. I was just nervous because I felt like I had to verbally identify myself. To say it out loud when it was still at a time that I hadn’t said it out loud a whole lot before. 

When I did come out to them, I remember I was in Philadelphia at Max Brenner Chocolate Restaurant. We were sitting at the table and I told them I needed to tell them something. My mom’s response went on so much, I swear she had a monologue prepared! “Oh, we love you so much. We were thinking you’d say something at some point soon. We have a vacation coming up, and we thought maybe you were going to do it then.” [Laughing] Honestly, after like five or 10 minutes of her talking, I was thinking, “Hey, this is my moment!” 

But I mean, [it was] really such a great reaction from her — and my dad. He just kept commenting, “Thank you for being so honest with us.” I must say I am so proud of my dad. Because considering the background and upbringing that he had, if he’d followed his parents’ footsteps, I would have been exiled from the family. I would not have been accepted. And so he is the pivot point. He is the one that turned it around and is willing to accept me for who I am. I’m proud of the amazing, inclusive father that he is. 

What is the background of your name?
It’s Italian. My dad’s ancestors are from Italy. But I identify as Armenian more than Italian. My mom is 100%. Growing up, we went to Armenian churches. I went to Armenian camps over the summer. We are very well connected with her Armenian family more so than my dad’s side. 

All right, let me pull up some totally random questions. If you had to gain 20 pounds. What food would you eat to gain weight?
Nachos and milkshakes.

What’s the most exotic thing you’ve eaten?
When I was in China, I think I ate snake. And I think I ate frog feet. No, no, sorry, chicken feet.

Favorite pair of shoes.
Years ago, when cork was a big thing, I had a pair of hightops made of cork.

First boy kiss?
Ha! I don’t want my parents to know. Actually, you know what? You can put it in. It was my 5-year-old neighbor.

[Laughing] I assume this was a while ago?
Oh my God, yes! That did not come out the way I meant it to. I was about 5 at the time too! 

That’s an important detail! [We both take a minute to compose ourselves] That was a good laugh, how about the last time you cried?
I have a picture of my grandmother and my grandfather on my desk. She passed away last July. I have the picture framed along with their obituary cards and I look at it every day, and every once in a while, it gets me a little emotional. 

It all comes back to the family doesn’t it? 

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