One day in 1932, Pat Oliveri decided he didn't want a hotdog or a ham sandwich for lunch. Nor did he want tuna, roast beef or egg salad. The owner of a little hotdog stand in the Italian neighborhood of South Philadelphia, Oliveri had become bored with the staples of his trade, and on that day, he wanted something else.
Spying a nice rib eye steak, he decided to slice it thinly, drop it on the grill and saute it with an onion; then he draped a piece of Mozzarella atop the hot meat while it still smoldered upon the grill. Once it had turned golden, he piled the whole shebang atop a crisp hard roll.
According to the legend among Philadelphia cognoscenti, two cops walked past while Oliveri tasted his new concoction. It looked and smelled so good, they wanted one too. And before you could say, "Yo!" the hotdog vendor had created a new specialty — the Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwich.
Though it was born in Philly, the sandwich has become an international favorite as well, wherever homesick northerners gather. Now, you can find it in pizza havens, cafes and sandwich emporiums, and even on the menus of fancy restaurants and big hotels. And, as Super Bowl Sunday is nearing, many a tailgate party will feature the good old Philly cheesesteak.
For those of you too savvy or lazy to make your own, I have a couple of suggestions about where in the Bay area you might find a reasonably authentic sample of this fine American contribution to the culinary arts.
Philly's Famous Cheesesteak Co.
An authentic version of the real Philly cheesesteak is made by this outfit founded by native Philadelphian Paul Campbell and dispensed from two locations, one in Clearwater and the other in Pinellas Park.
We visited Campbell's little sandwich shop on East Bay Drive, finding it perfectly suited to our wishes. The building sits forlornly amid a huge shopping center. It has banged up walls and ancient fans, complemented by grubby holes in the ceiling. It looked like the ceiling tiles might fall down upon the line of customers waiting for their orders, but care had been taken to prop two-by-fours in strategic locations to keep the whole mess where it should be.
We instantly knew we had a winner, because the junky cheesesteak sandwich thrives under less-than-ideal conditions. Our hearts fluttered further when we spotted real Tastykakes sitting in the cooler (they're sweet, commercially packaged cakes made in Philadelphia). The kitchen behind the counter was producing the most amazing greasy smells. Promising, indeed.
Two sizes of cheesesteak were listed on the menu, one 7 1/2 inches long and the other 12 inches. We ordered the smaller version, topped with onion, pepper and mushroom, and crowned with mozzarella ($4.44, plus 25 cents for each extra topping). Additionally, we ordered a pepperoni pizza (large, $8.41, additional toppings 93 cents each).
It took a few minutes, during which I admired the big TV set roaring in the middle of the room and the red plastic baskets that held the meals of several others sitting at small tables.
Out came my sandwich, featuring a real Amoroso hard roll imported from Philadelphia, good quality meat — probably rib eye steak — sliced so thin and fried just right, topped with real provolone. When you bite into such a sandwich, it is drippy, gooey and hot, but believe me, it is delectable. The meat disintegrates in your mouth, and the juice, onion and pepper, tumble charmingly out of your mouth onto the wrapper as you eat.
This is probably as good a cheesesteak as you're going to find this far South.
Warning: Those trying a cheesesteak for the first time should avoid driving while eating, for it can be hazardous.
Warning: The cheesesteak is 99 percent saturated fat, clearly not a weapon in the fight against heart disease. But hey, get over it.
The pizza got thumbs up from a gang of teens I brought along as testers, but you might want to avoid the "garlic knots" ($1.86 for six) — they were pretty vile, dusted with garlic powder instead of real garlic. Still, the place offered a nice selection of other dishes like hoagies, wings and calzones.
And lest you health-conscious folks feel left out, there even was healthy tomato Italiano soup ($2.52) and stuffed tomato with tuna ($2.95) for your eating pleasure.
For those of you who prefer a cleaner restaurant, I have another suggestion: Chubby's, a little brick building sitting like a sentinel at the base of Bayshore Boulevard in Tampa.
Chubby's has been in business almost 20 years, and is also owned by former northerners, George and Zan Fuller. The restaurant is so innocuous it's easy to miss, with a single dining room adjacent to a kitchen. Balloons in various colors peek from the wallpaper. The restaurant is self-serve until 5 p.m. with wait service afterward. Its simple plastic tables and chairs give it a homey charm.
The menu sports several varieties of cheesesteaks, those with onion, pepper and mushroom, various kinds of cheese, and God forbid, even tomato and mayo, which no self-respecting Philadelphian would ever put on a perfectly good cheesesteak; but hey, if you're into the bizarre, there's nothing I can do.
I ordered the standard cheesesteak sandwich with onion, pepper and mushroom. Mozzarella on top. It's available in two sizes: the regular, 9-inch ($4.70) and a footlong version ($5.50); with my toppings, the price came to $5.25. My dining companion ordered lasagna ($8.95), which comes with a salad and bread.
Sitting comfortably while awaiting our order, we decided the place would be good after a brisk run down Bayshore, if you could remember it was there.
When our food arrived, my sandwich was piping hot, fat with good-quality meat, and tasty enough that I ate more than I really had to. My only complaint concerned the bun, which was too soft to be authentic — it should be crusty and firm outside, and soft and pliable inside. But it still was a very solid sandwich and one reasonably close to what you might find in Philadelphia.
The lasagna was decent, with a worthy sauce and a couple of strips of pasta buried amid a great pool of cheese. The salad was certainly OK.
We got so comfy, the nice young waitress had to throw us out gently, as the kitchen was closing. But we went agreeably, since we had already spent much of an hour griping about the Philadelphia Eagles, an essential accompaniment to noshing on cheesesteaks.