The first day of the Philadelphia Sandwich Tour, scrumptious as it was, served merely as appetizer. Cue the music from Rocky, because day two is the main event, taking place in Philadelphia’s sandwich epicenter, the Italian Market.
Truth be told, the Italian Market is only nominally Italian these days. As we walked along South Ninth Street, we saw tons of Asian and Hispanic markets, including a live poultry shop, and had our gustatory purpose been less narrowly defined, we’d have eagerly stopped in a taqueria or a dim sum restaurant. But this is not a Philadelphia Burrito Tour, so on to the sandwiches!
We took SEPTA’s Broad Street Line to Ellsworth-Federal and walked a few blocks down Federal to one of Philadelphia’s most famous hoagie shops, Chickie’s Italian Deli. Rick Sebak’s Sandwiches That You Will Like, the Citizen Kane of sandwich documentaries, profiled Chickie’s, and I was afraid that it would be crowded from the get-go, but given the cold weather, we were the only customers when we arrived around 11 A.M. on a Saturday morning. I hadn’t counted on the shop being quite so small—really just a narrow aisle upon entry where you place your order, with the rest of the shop given over to the food preparation area. So, we sat outside, in the cold. We sacrifice for our art.
The owners and staff were busy making catered sandwich platters, but they gave our order priority when we walked in. Given the number of sandwiches that we would be eating throughout the day, I opted for small size, and person behind the counter gave me a look and pointed to the sample roll for the small size—not a seeded Sarcone’s roll cut from a larger loaf, like the medium and large sizes, but a plain, single-serve roll. I must not have had enough coffee, because I still picked the small size regardless. Don’t order the small at Chickie’s! The roll is so important to a proper hoagie, and I made a rookie mistake.
Nevertheless, our two sandwiches were delightful. I simply had to order the eponymous Chickie’s Special, with prosciutto, sopressata, capicolla, sharp provolone, roasted peppers, lettuce, tomato, onion, and olive oil. The dominant flavor was the roasted pepper, sweet and a bit smoky, which slightly overwhelmed the ample, razor-thin meats. The sandwich was quite well constructed, with the requisite everything in every bite a proper hoagie exhibits. But the roll, though very nice (and probably a Sarcone’s product), just didn’t work as well as a traditional Sarcone’s roll, with a firm crust and seeds, would have (and that’s my fault, not Chickie’s). The crust had a nice bite to it, and I’d kill for a sandwich this good back home, but I keep thinking what could have been . . .
Our second sandwich from Chickie’s was a lesser-known Philadelphia sandwich speciality, a chicken cutlet sandwich. We ordered the Chicken Italiano, with sharp provolone and broccoli rabe (a combination that will recur, with good reason, when we visit a roast pork place later on the tour). Now this sandwich was a revelation. I’ve only ever had the Philly-style cutlet from Taylor Gourmet in Washington, DC, run by a pair of Philadelphia ex-pats, and it was good, but it wasn’t, well, this. Chickie’s chicken cutlet was thinly breaded and cooked to perfection, with no grease on the outside. Warm through, the cutlet worked perfectly with the sharp bite of the cheese and the bitterness of the rabe. Simple presentation, amazing ingredients, and just one of the finest sandwiches I sampled on the tour.
Thus fortified with our first hoagies of the day, we sauntered down to South Ninth Street, and the intersection of Federal and South Ninth just so happens to be a block north of intersection of Ninth and Passyunk, home to the Scylla and Charybdis of Cheesesteaks, Pat’s King of Steaks and Geno’s Steaks.
Could I, a semi-serious sandwich sampler, actually visit one of these tourist traps? I had sworn I wouldn’t, but, with some encouragement from my intrepid travelling companion (who took the wool out of my ears and unlashed me from the mast), we sailed right in.
Geno’s reminded me of nothing so much as a Wildwood boardwalk cheesesteakerie, with its garish colors and lights, and while I know some of the world’s finest food can be had on the Wildwood boardwalk, we opted instead for the more muted Pat’s King of Steaks. And you know what? I’m glad we did.
We ordered up a Cheesesteak with Sharp Provolone and Fried Onions (or, a Provolone Wit, as it were), and though the sandwich was a bit pricey ($9.00) for what we got, it was, if not the best cheesesteak in Philadelphia, certainly an iconic example of the form. The steak, though not plentiful, was nicely cooked despite being prepared at a lull—there were only two people in line before us— and not chopped to hash. While the provolone could have stood a bit more melting, the onions were definitely at that wonderful point just shy of melting that you can only get on a flat grill that has seen years and years of use.
The roll was decidedly generic, but it served its purpose as a cheesesteak delivery device, and I can’t fault any place that offers up a free hot pepper bar. It was a decent sandwich, again, something I’d be more than happy to have in DC. Should I have gone for the Whiz Wit? Probably, but I just can’t bring myself to do it. I mean, it’s barely even cheese.
The cold kept us ducking in and out of stores in the Italian Market, and when we settled in for some coffee (more for heat than caffeine at that point), I noticed that our next target for the day, another star in Rick Sebak’s epic (indeed the shop that gave his documentary its title), George’s Sandwich Shop, waited just across the street.
I hadn’t originally planned on stopping here, but a recent post by Hawk Krall on Serious Eats documenting George’s Meatball Sandwich earned the shop a place on the itinerary.
Again, simple preparation and immaculate ingredients won the day. The meatballs were absurdly tender and full of pork and beef flavor, and the marinara accompanied rather than drowned them out. With a few shakes of grated Parmesan cheese, this sandwich, served up on a few sheets of paper at the tiny counter inside, makes me wonder whether the meatball sandwich needs to be considered alongside the hoagie, roast pork, and cheesesteak as a traditional Philadelphia sandwich. Topped off with a birch beer, this sandwich was an unexpected pleasure.
I’ve been rather critical about rolls this entire trip, I realize, but I’m happy to report that George’s Meatball Sandwich was on an ideal roll, tender with only the slightest bite in the crust. This is perhaps the one time I’ve ever been glad to not see a Sarcone’s seeded loaf surrounding my sandwich.
And speaking of Sarcone’s, stay tuned, because the final installment of the Philadelphia Sandwich Tour includes a trip to the motherloaf itself, as well as the sandwich I proclaim best of the entire tour.