"Where should I go to get the best cheesesteak?"
It's a question every born-and-bred Philadelphian (this one included) is asked on repeat from out-of-town friends. We'll probably answer with Pat's or Geno's, or maybe even Jim's or Tony Luke's, but deep down, we'll be torn between revealing the real sandwich tourists should be seeking and keeping that secret to ourselves.
The calling card sandwich of the City of Brotherly Love isn't made with steak, onions and electric-yellow Whiz. No. It starts with an Italian roll that's dressed up in sesame seeds, then stuffed with juicy, thinly sliced pork; spicy, bitter broccoli rabe; razor-sharp provolone; and maybe a long hot, nothing more. Meet the roast pork sandwich.
"This is the true sandwich of Philly," Eli Kulp, co-owner of High Street on Market, explains. "The Philly cheesesteak doesn't represent people who care about a good sandwich, because most of them are crap."
"It's a reflection of our [city's] character," Craig LaBan, the longtime restaurant critic of The Philadelphia Inquirer, adds. "You kind of have to eat it over a sidewalk, holding it out just a little bit, so you don't splatter it all over your shirt. There's a sort of gusto in that. There's nothing shy about a pork sandwich."
The same goes for the team behind the counter at John's Roast Pork, which started as a small shack in 1930 and is now one of the longest continually operating roast pork shops in Philadelphia. Walk into the rebuilt-but-still-small building next to a set of train tracks, and you'll be met by ladies who have been making these sandwiches for years. "Pork, steak or meatballs?" is the question, delivered in a South Philly Italian accent. Everyone is "hon" or "babe," and when the line of cops, construction workers, neighbors and a few tourists starts shaping up at 11:30 a.m., there's no time for jokes. That's South Philly: warm but a bit rough around the edges.
I'm still trying to remember the last time someone called me "hon" in that accent when I bite into the sandwich with its almost-melted provolone and flavors of rosemary and garlic. It tastes like Philly in a way that nothing else does.
Unlike many regional culinary icons, there's no argument in town over where the sandwich originated; everyone seems to accept that there is no single creator. "The pork sandwich is eternal," LaBan says. "As long as people have been cooking pigs and baking bread, they've been making roast pork sandwiches. Gaining popularity as a staple of Italian American weddings and christenings, they're "the descendant of the porchetta sandwich but sliced down for the American steam table."
Joe Nicolosi, co-owner of DiNic's Roast Pork, which serves as much as 1,000 pounds of meat on a busy Saturday from a stand in the bustling Reading Terminal Market, says his family tradition comes from a sandwich shop his father and uncle opened in the garage behind his grandfather's butcher shop. Still, others who grew up in the Italian community in South Philly in the 1940s and 50s recall it being made at home with leftovers from a Sunday roast and an antipasto platter.
In Philadelphia, the sandwich hasn't strayed far. Even chefs who play with the original know and respect the classic. "It's a great South Philly tradition, and it deserves to stay that way," Kulp says. "That was the first item that I knew would be on [the menu]— and it would probably be on there forever," he adds. Though his recipe sticks to the basic elements, he makes some changes, like topping the roast pork with kimchi-style fermented broccoli rabe, which is crunchier than most, and swapping a purchased roll from an Italian bakery for a house-baked sesame semolina roll (see the recipe).
A couple of miles away at Brigantessa, executive chef and co-owner Joe Cicala runs with the sandwich's Italian roots, using thick-cut porchetta and caciocavallo cheese, which Cicala dubs "the Italian version of provolone." It all comes sandwiched into bread that's made from the restaurant's well-noted pizza dough. "That's what they do in Napoli," he adds.
The sandwich has followed chefs outside of Philadelphia, too. "Once I moved to New York, I realized you couldn't get a hoagie, cheesesteak or a roast pork," Dave Fedoroff of Fedoroff's Roast Pork, a sandwich shop in Brooklyn, laments. Having hoped to open a hot dog stand, he switched gears after he realized he'd have to make a roast pork sandwich himself if he ever wanted to find one in NYC. Since launching at street food festivals two years ago, he's had to explain the sandwich to New Yorkers. "People ask me where the barbecue sauce is. They have no idea what the sandwich is."
Tom Scodari, a native Philadelphian and cook at Chicago industry favorite Giant, had a similar issue when he made roast pork sandwiches for family meal. "With a staff meal like that, we'll make a demo one to put up as a joke or guideline to people," he explains. "They needed some coaching, but we basically described it as an Italian beef but with pork and broccoli rabe on it."
These chefs and others, like Chris Cipollone, who's currently serving a version laced with an addictively spicy pickled cherry pepper relish at his NYC pop-up Cipollini at Piora, have been preaching the roast pork gospel—and unsurprisingly finding converts outside of Philly.
But, like most great regional foods, the roast pork sandwich is best enjoyed in its natural habitat—preferably where someone says, "Thanks, hon" in a South Philly accent, as she hands you your change.
So next time you're headed to Philadelphia, skip the steak "wiz wit" and ask your local friends to take you to their favorite roast pork spot. You can thank us later.
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