The scene: Ask almost anyone outside of Philadelphia to name the city's most famous sandwich and you will undoubtedly hear "cheesesteak." But among actual residents of the City of Brotherly Love, another between-the-bread concoction vies neck and neck with the cheesesteak as a local favorite, and it is even more uniquely local - the Philadelphia-style Italian roast pork sandwich. There is plenty of overlap, since many sandwich shops here sell both roast pork and cheesesteaks, and both come in several particular variations. But just as there are stands primarily famous for cheesesteaks (Pat's, Geno's, Jim's), so are there places that are first and foremost about pork.
I set out to try the homegrown sandwich at three venues famous for specializing in them, DiNic's Roast Pork and Beef; John's Roast Pork and Tony Luke's. There are many more I could have tried, including Sarcone's, Di Bruno, Sessano and others, but I went classic rather than launch a comprehensive mission to find the city's best cult sandwich. However, just these three establishments offer plenty of variety and show the creativity in a seemingly simple dish.
DiNic's is a busy four-sided stand in the middle of the super-popular Reading Terminal Market, with everything out on display, a few counter stools and an omnipresent line. Most patrons take their sandwiches to go or eat at one of the market's communal tables. John's is a freestanding shack on a South Philly corner with a few outdoor tables, a small indoor counter where you order and a thriving to-go business. Tony Luke's is a neon-encrusted street-front operation that has grown huge in recent years and now features an enclosed space that used to be outside, with a decent amount of table seating, but you still order at what used to be an outside window. It is the most commercial, with plenty of T-shirts, merchandise and pictures of famous customers on the walls. This original South Philly location now anchors a 10-eatery chain that includes Philly's baseball and football stadiums, a mall, two Atlantic City casinos and an outpost in Bahrain - I kid you not.
Reason to visit: Italian roast pork sandwich
The food: The sandwich basically consists of hot, wet, thinly sliced roast pork on a hoagie roll, with the standard options of cheese (typically provolone) and greens, a choice between sautéed broccoli rabe or spinach, with the former more traditional. This is easily the most famous use of broccoli rabe - maybe its only use - in the American sandwich kingdom. The bitter greens and rich juicy pork offer an interesting contrast that make the sandwich unique, but if the pork is not standout, the broccoli rabe overwhelms and spinach is generally a safer bet. Some places offer additional options including sweet or hot peppers. Each establishment puts a unique twist on these simple ingredients. As all the ingredients are wet and sloppy when combined on the roll; there is no neat way to eat an Italian Roast Pork sandwich.