You can pay a hundred bucks for a Philly cheesesteak at Barclay Prime, on Rittenhouse Square, sit in a plush leather armchair, and nibble Kobe beef, lobster, and shaved truffles off a parmesan brioche. Or you can drop $7.50 for its down-to-earth cousin and eat it while standing in the glow of neon lights on the sidewalk in South Philly’s Italian Market, at Pat’s, the 24/7 hangout where the city’s signature sandwich was invented in 1930. But if you want the ultimate—a mountain of sizzledsliced beef, larded with glistening onion bits and oozing melted cheese, heaped into a mighty shaft of bakery-fresh bread—you should skip the places everybody knows about and head for one of Philadelphia’s true elite steak shops.
Far from the urban core, Mama’s Pizzeria, in the suburb of Bala Cynwyd, makes a magnificent steak (“steak” means a cheesesteak without the cheese, and no one around here calls it a Philly cheesesteak). Chef Paul Castellucci’s beef is thin-sliced, lean, and scarlet, and it hits the hot griddle in clumps that get hacked up with a trowel as they brown. He then applies a great mound of what looks like shredded mozzarella but is in fact a proprietary mix that, incredibly, does not stick to the hot iron surface. The beef and cheese are worked over so thoroughly that the cheese nearly disappears, but its luxury seeps into every bite. The onions are not cooked on the grill among the shreds of beef, which is the customary way steak chefs do it. Instead, Castellucci sautés them separately to the exact point where they tip from sharp to sweet and crisp to limp. They are added to the sandwich after the meat and cheese mixture is hoisted from the griddle into the jaws of a length of muscular Italian bread. Long hot peppers, roasted in Mama’s pizza oven, add brilliant red and jade-green hues, as well as hot sparkle, to the earthy combo.
When asked why virtually every good cheesesteak place around Philadelphia is run by people of Italian heritage despite the lack of a cognate for the dish in Italy, Castellucci shrugs at first and says, “No clue!” But as he works over piles of ingredients on his griddle for a multi-sandwich takeout order, he beams with a revelatory smile and momentarily stops hacking and mixing. “Maybe it’s because we were such good masons, and to make a cheesesteak right, you need a trowel.”
At Dalessandro’s Steaks and Hoagies, a crowded storefront diner, no one has time or curiosity enough to speculate about the cheesesteak’s supposed Italian provenance. While most steak places are sassy, this outfit verges on the pugnacious. The house motto is: “If it doesn’t taste like Dalessandro’s steaks & hoagies, then it’s not!!” Peppers and pickles are the star garnishes here. More than a half dozen kinds of peppers in varying degrees of hotness and sweetness are arrayed along the low counter, and onions for the steaks are cooked long enough to become a soft, translucent amber. As at Mama’s, Dalessandro’s griddle man slashes beef into juice-glistening confetti as it cooks, a divergence from the original South Philly way, which is to cook it as relatively intact flaps (the most soulful version of which will be found at Steve’s Prince of Steaks).
John’s Roast Pork is working person’s place, open only Monday through Friday for breakfast and lunch because the shipyard personnel who were its original clientele in 1930 all used to go home for dinner. Heavy industry no longer dominates the neighborhood, which has become a Monopoly board of big-box stores, strip malls, and discount warehouses that dwarf the little sandwich shop and its patio picnic tables. (There is no indoor seating.) John’s roast pork measures up to the city’s gold standard, served at Tony Luke’s (where you’ll get a distinguished cheesesteak, too), especially because it is stuffed into a glorious seeded Carangi Bakery roll and, optionally, topped with clumps of spinach sautéed with pepper and garlic.
Vonda Bucci, mother of proprietor John Jr., is also baffled by the domination of the trade by people of Italian heritage, noting that while old-world porchetta is a vague antecedent of the sandwich on which the family restaurant is based, nothing she knows in the Italian kitchen presages the cheesesteak.
Despite its discomforting name, Chink’s (from the founder’s moniker) is a charming destination, a 1950s neighborhood sandwich shop staffed by young women who delight in what they do. The pair who work at the steamy griddle, which faces a picture window looking out on the sidewalk, ingenuously pose for a pedestrian with a camera while they hack up frying meat, scoot sizzling onions around, layer on slices of American cheese, then load it all into a long, chewy, toasty-edged roll. The result: a buttery confluence of meat and dairy and weeping sweet onion that welcomes a spill of sharp yellow peppers and pickle chips.
Some believe the city’s premier cheesesteak is made at Leo’s Steak Shop, out in Folcroft. We have little doubt it is the largest—at least half a yard of Italian bread laden with pounds of beef and onions trowel-cut on the griddle into a fine hash and saturated with melted cheese. Owner Jack Mullan allows that the good bread comes from the century-old Amoroso’s Baking Company but will not divulge the name of the butcher that has always supplied Leo’s with its extraordinarily full-flavored beef. “After thirty-five years, you think I’m going to tell you?” he guffaws when we inquire. And when we ask his opinion about the riddle of the cheesesteak’s Italian roots, Mullan puts that quest to rest with some finality: “We’re Irish!”
Chink’s 6030 Torresdale Ave., Philadelphia (215-535-9405)
Dalessandro’s Steaks and Hoagies 600 Wendover St., Philadelphia (215-482-5407)
John’s Roast Pork 14 E. Snyder Ave., Philadelphia (215-463-1951)
Leo’s Steak Shop 1403 Chester Pike, Folcroft, PA (610-586-1199)
Mama’s Pizzeria 426 Belmont Ave., Bala Cynwyd, PA (610-664-4757)