Let’s call it what it was: a pilgrimage.
Along with my intrepid travelling companion, I recently ventured up to Philadelphia for a three day Sandwich Tour. From Fishtown to the Italian Market, we hunted down the whole range of Philadelphia sandwich archetypes: roast pork, cheesesteak, chicken cutlet, and cold cut hoagie, with a few meatball hoagies thrown in for (mostly) good measure.
Seven stops, eleven sandwiches, and one birch beer. Follow along, and apologies in advance if you get hungry.
Most of the destinations on the tour were pre-planned; By George! was an impromptu stop, because we were hungry after the drive to Philadelphia. Our hotel was close to the Reading Terminal Market, making it an easy first target. But I didn’t think to have a camera on hand to immortalize the sandwich, a Provolone Cheesesteak with Fried Onions. And that’s fine, because the cheesesteak wasn’t quite worthy of immortalization. I’m not a cheesesteak guru, yet this one was adequate, verging on fine, but no more.
The steak, though plentiful, was chopped nearly to shreds and lacked much in the way of taste. The provolone and onions didn’t add much to the sandwich either. The onions and provolone should almost melt into the steak, but they were practically non-existent in this cheesesteak. Still, By George! gets major points for using a fresh Sarcone’s seeded hoagie roll rather than the typical Amoroso’s-style soft roll in which most cheesesteaks are served. The crisp crust provided good textural contrast for the soft meat inside. That’s a trend I’d like to see more of.
Thus fortified, we moved on to the first planned sandwich tour stop, a sentimental favorite: Tommy’s Pizza on the corner of Girard and Palmer in Fishtown.
It had been a good ten years since the last time my grandmother gave me some money and told me to run around the corner and get hoagies from Tommy’s, one of many neighborhood pizza and hoagie joints lining Girard Avenue. And that’s exactly what it is, a local hoagie joint with no pretensions to the contrary. So, while Tommy’s may not score highly on the lists of “Philadelphia’s Best” anything, they still represent the most basic kind of sandwich shop in the city, and I wanted to sample their wares to see how they stack up against both memory and the current competition.
Until this visit—a span stretching twenty-odd years—I’ve only ever eaten Tommy’s Italian Hoagie. Filled with provolone, ham, salami, mortadella (or possibly bologna), lettuce, tomato, onion, and, um, pickles, topped with oil, vinegar, and dry oregano. We’re not talking rarified ingredients here—no soprasatta, capicola, or prosciutto to be found—but everything was fresh and, as seen below, properly constructed such that all the flavors were present in every bite.
The roll was pedestrian but served its purpose of keeping all the ingredients together, and it didn’t become soggy from the oil and vinegar. The pickle was a bit of a shock to see, but upon reflection, it added a nice bite to the otherwise soft consistency of the meats and cheese. It was, in short, the hoagie I remember buying when visiting my grandmother, and to that extent, it’s a winner. Keep your madeline; I’ll have another hoagie.
My culinary counterpart tried the Tuna Salad Hoagie as well, which she proclaimed a very fine exemplar of the form. And we split Tommy’s Meatball Hoagie with Provolone, a sandwich that was less than stellar. The marinara was bland, practically unseasoned, and the meatballs lacked any flavor. Not even the ample provolone, which didn’t come close to melting, could save this one, making me glad I didn’t try it as a younger lad. But still, the Meatball Hoagie isn’t really a purely Philadelphia sandwich, so it doesn’t count against Tommy’s, which scores high for serving both the hoagie of my childhood and for making a fresh, well-priced cold cut hoagie.