The Roast Pork Sandwiches That Philly Loved Before Cheesesteaks

If you know anything about the food culture in Philadelphia, then you probably know that the city is known for its cheesesteak, a massive sandwich containing beefsteak and melted cheese. But, despite the massive popularity of the cheesesteak — and its widespread fame — it actually isn't the only sandwich loved by Philly's residents. In fact, it wasn't even the first sandwich to make its way into the hearts of Philadelphians.

Rather, that title belongs to the roast pork sandwich. A roast pork sandwich may not sound as exciting or interesting as a Philly cheesesteak, but you would be sorely mistaken to overlook the roast pork sandwich next time you're visiting Philadelphia — especially because the locals hold it in such high regard.

Take longtime Philadelphia Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan — in a May 2017 interview, he told Tasting Table, "The pork sandwich is eternal. As long as people have been cooking pigs and baking bread, they've been making roast pork sandwiches."

What's in the roast pork sandwich?

So what exactly are the magic ingredients that make a sandwich an eternal element of a city? Philly's roast pork sandwich consists of a long sesame seed roll filled with, of course, roasted pork, as well as sharp provolone cheese and broccoli rabe. But it's not just any roasted pork — the roasted pork of a Philly roast pork sandwich has been slow-cooked for hours in a rub that may consist of ingredients such as salt and pepper, garlic, fennel, rosemary, and possibly even some wine.

There are certainly variations out there — some cooks may add different toppings or maybe they swap out the broccoli for spinach or another green. Or perhaps they might choose a different set of ingredients for the rub, giving the roast pork a different taste. However, it's the sweet simplicity of just the perfectly slow-cooked pork, provolone, and broccoli rabe that is the traditional recipe — the one that so many Philadelphians fell in love with.

What's the history of the roast pork sandwich?

Before the roast pork sandwich was popular in Philadelphia, it was created all the way over in the Abruzzo region of Italy. Because of Philly's high population of Italian immigrants (and their descendants), the sandwich soon became a staple of the city. One of those immigrants, Domenico Bucci, opened a shack on Snyder Avenue in the 1930s that offered just two menu items — one of which was a pork sandwich.

But it was Bucci's grandson John Bucci Jr. who added provolone and sauteed spinach to the sandwich — it's unclear when broccoli rabe became the more popular topping, replacing spinach. Bucci Jr. still runs the family business, John's Roast Pork — one of the most popular places to get a roast pork sandwich in Philly, whether or not it's the actual birthplace of the sandwich.

All in all, Philadelphians who spoke to Tasting Table explained that they didn't necessarily think of the sandwich as having been invented by one person — as restaurant critic Craig LaBan said, the sandwich is eternal within the city.

Is the cheesesteak more iconic than the roast pork?

The cheesesteak dates back to 1930 — as the story goes, Pat Olivieri, a hot dog vendor, one day decided to cook a beef sandwich for himself. A cabbie passing by asked for one, and the Philly steak sandwich was born. The demand began to grow by word of mouth and Olivieri decided to open up a shop on 9th Street and Passyunk Avenue called Pat's King of Steaks, which is still open today.

But which sandwich is more iconic? Certainly, anyone who doesn't live in Philly wouldn't hesitate to say the cheesesteak — but Philadelphians wouldn't necessarily agree. Eli Kulp, co-owner of High Street on Market (which has its own version of a roast pork sandwich) said, "This is the true sandwich of Philly. The Philly cheesesteak doesn't represent people who care about a good sandwich, because most of them are crap."

But it still remains relatively unknown outside of Philadelphia. One chef, Dave Fedoroff, who started selling roast pork sandwiches at New York street festivals, told Tasting Table that New Yorkers don't quite get the sandwich. Fedoroff said, "People ask me where the barbecue sauce is. They have no idea what the sandwich is."

And while the cheesesteak is currently the more well-known sandwich, there are plenty of people out there making the case for the roast pork sandwich being the superior of the two. You may as well try both next time you're in Philly to see for yourself.