Campus Life

Taste of State: Campuses offer comfort food, favorites to student diners

The famed West Halls chocolate chip cookies aren't the only food favorites among Penn State students

The breakfast pizza at Penn State Worthington Scranton is but one of many food favorites served up throughout the Commonwealth Campus system. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

For some students at University Park, there’s no better dining hall treat than the chocolate chip cookies served at West Halls.

The demand for the warm, slightly gooey delight keeps the dining commons staff hopping -- during the course of the fall semester alone, staffers baked 700 dozen of the famed chocolate chip cookies each day.

And though the West Halls chocolate chip cookie is beloved among University Park students, it isn’t the only food favorite out there. Across Penn State’s 24 campuses, there are a number of dishes Commonwealth Campus students, as well as faculty and staff, indulge in.

For people at Penn State Worthington Scranton, the campus’ breakfast pizza is a top choice to kick off the day.

Paul Nicolini, culinary manager for both Penn State Worthington Scranton and Penn State Wilkes-Barre, said the breakfast pizza includes eggs, sausage, bacon, ham and onions on a shell that’s sourced locally.

“That all gets cooked off and we make it with American cheese,” he explained. “It’s a very filling and popular item.”

The dish, which is served on a Sicilian-style crust, is available only on Fridays.

“We wanted to make it a special event on Fridays for people who are on campus,” Nicolini said. “We’ll have people come over and wait for it to come out of the oven.”

He added that during Lent, a meatless version of the breakfast pizza is made available.

Meanwhile, the buffalo chicken wrap is the hands-down favorite at the Wilkes-Barre campus’ Hickory Court Café.

“It’s the most popular item on the menu,” he said.

The wrap is made to order. Café customers can choose their wrap -- white, wheat or garlic herb and tomato. Diners then pick between grilled or fried chicken — Nicolini estimates that 98 percent of customers go with the fried chicken. The wrap is then dressed with a choice of lettuce, tomatoes, onions and peppers, along with provolone, American or cheddar cheese. Finally, customers can choose between hot wing sauce or ranch dressing.

“It’s wrapped and put in a Panini press, grilled and served,” Nicolini stated.

The Hickory Court Café sells 50 to 60 wraps -- which cost less than $5 each -- over a typical lunch period.

“We rotate it on our menu. We offer it three days a week and we have kids who want it five days a week,” Nicolini said.

Kathie Flanagan-Herstek, director of student and enrollment services at the campus, observed, “While my students value and celebrate diversity, not when it comes to their lunch choice -- it’s consistently a buffalo chicken wrap.”

Jonathan Kukta, director of housing and food services for the Hazleton, Schuylkill, Wilkes-Barre and Worthington Scranton campuses, added, “Each time I’m at University Park and run into a former student, I’m always told how much they miss the Penn State Wilkes-Barre buffalo wraps.”

But Wilkes-Barre’s Hickory Court Café isn’t the only place where customers can get made-to-order favorites. At Penn State Altoona’s Port Sky Café, diners can start off their day with an MTO breakfast sandwich.

Erin McConnell, Altoona’s food service manager, said customers can choose between a bagel, croissant, English muffin or biscuit, followed by ham, bacon or sausage with American cheese.

Between August and December of last year, the café sold more than 20,000 breakfast sandwiches.

On weekends, Port Sky has started offering a made-to-order flatbread and quesadilla. They have really taken a liking to this option on weekends,” McConnell said. But unlike other Penn State locations, Altoona’s customer tastes continue to evolve.

“What’s funny here at Port Sky is their ‘favorite’ changes every year or semester,” she stated. “What’s trending this year is Creamery ice cream -- something we don’t make -- but it’s very popular in the evenings.”

Creamery ice cream isn’t the only sweet treat available to Penn State Altoona diners, however. Port Sky offers a blue cake -- a vanilla cake with blue food coloring topped with white icing.

“It’s something that people say ‘oh wow’ to,” McConnell said. “Sometimes we’ll decorate it with blue and white sprinkles for special occasions.”

Altoona’s other popular dessert option is the “brookie.”

“They’re a brownie and chocolate chip cookie combination,” McConnell explained. “The brownie cake part is on the bottom of the pan and the cookie dough is put on top and they’re baked together.”

Finding a brookie at Port Sky could be something of a challenge, though. “We put them out by the registers and they go pretty quickly.”

Meanwhile, the big nights at Hazleton campus are the surf and turf nights, according to Kukta.

“Each week our culinary staff prepares a different steak served with a seafood feature,” he said. “One semester I saw a student taking a picture and I asked her why she was doing that and she told me to send to her sister who attended another institution to show her how great the food is.”

Like a favorite pair of jeans, the appeal of some dishes is timeless. At Penn State Berks, the hands-down favorite is the chicken parm.

Tom Henry, a housing and food service manager at the campus, said it’s a classic breaded and fried chicken patty that’s smothered with mozzarella and marinara sauce. “It’s an Italian favorite and Italian sells well here,” he explained.

In fact, student feedback prompted the campus to increase the number of times the chicken parm is offered at Berks. Henry said it was available twice during a four-week cycle menu. “They wanted to see it more.” So Penn State Berks added it to the menu weekly and demand has remained strong.

“We sold 232 last week alone,” he said. “I think it reminds them of home. It’s simple comfort food for them.”

But some campus favorites don’t even appear on the regular menu. At Penn State Schuylkill, a crème brulee French toast only appears once a year.

“The crème brulee French toast is a popular item within the Schuylkill County community, as it is featured yearly when the Schuylkill United Way hosts its annual kickoff and end-of-campaign celebration at the Schuylkill campus for the community,” said Kukta. “It is so popular that the local radio station promotes the French toast at the event.”

Kelly Malone, executive director of Schuylkill United Way, said, “Each and every year, those attending our breakfasts make one request: ‘Are you serving the crème brulee French toast?’”

She joked, “To encourage our volunteers to make their campaign goal, we tell them at the kickoff breakfast that if the goal is not met, there will be no crème brulee French toast served at the appreciation breakfast in November. Needless to say, we have not missed our campaign total for many years!”

Altoona’s McConnell said her campus will sometimes offer new dishes on the menu for students to try, such as curried goat as part of a recent Caribbean-themed night.

“They’ll get really excited and want to try it,” she said of the students, but in the end “they always go back to the favorites.”

Last Updated February 18, 2015