Hoagie heaven

Does it disturb you to know that the cheesesteak was originally just "the steak"? This icon of Philadelphia cuisine was simply meat on a bun from the time of its birth at a South Philly hot dog stand in 1933 until some time in the 1960s. That's when the Olivieri brothers, of the legendary Pat's King of Steaks, got the bright — orange-bright — idea of adding Cheez Whiz.

Sherri Abbulone, from South Philly, and husband Joey, from Woodhaven, have taken on the challenge of creating authentic Philly cheesesteaks Downriver. In their eight-seat storefront they display a testimonial from a retired Ford employee who moved here 44 years ago; he spent that time vainly searching for a real cheesesteak — until Joey's opened in August 2005.

The term "cheesesteak" is misleading, since the sandwich is mostly meat. Three cheese choices are traditionally offered: the Whiz, American or provolone. At Joey's, it's made like this: Thinly slice ribeye steak and fry a heap of it on the griddle. Grill sweet Vidalias at the same time. If you're using American or provolone, lay the cheese over the frying steak, to melt it. Turn the whole thing onto a roll flown in from Amoroso's Bakery in Philadelphia. If you're a Cheez Whiz traditionalist, that's dolloped directly onto the roll.

The result should be juicy — the life is not cooked out of the steak. My friend Erin, who grew up in Philadelphia, says the cheese should not really be visible — "it's just the goo holding the meat together." And the Amoroso roll is important because it's soft, which allows it to absorb the juices. Says Sherri Abbulone, "It's all about the roll. When you bite it you tear it. Everybody knows about this roll. People from Philadelphia take this very seriously. We get mad when it's not done right."

I abandoned my quest for historical authenticity and ordered provolone. It adds a creaminess that, to my mind, is the hallmark of a good cheesesteak. (Sherri herself says she prefers white American, anyway.) On one of my visits, the sandwich was appropriately moist and juicy, and on another somewhat less so, though still good. The creaminess of the cheese, the sweetness of the onions and the tang of the steak harmonize to produce a sandwich that only a vegetarian could scorn.

In Philadelphia, there's somewhat of a "cheesesteak Nazi" culture to ordering. You're expected to know the drill: State your cheese and then wit' or wit'out (onions), in that order. (In fact, the cross-the-street rival of Pat's King of Steaks, Geno's Steaks, recently achieved talk-radio notoriety for posting a sign: "This is America ... when ordering, 'speak English.'")

The insistence on protocol — though not the intolerance — is continued at Joey's, where the front of the menu lists rules 1 through 4 for "How to Order a Cheesesteak." It also warns, "Any hoagie can be ruined upon request with mayo." The counter man, Big John, is quite patient with novices, however.

As if transplanting an icon weren't enough responsibility, the Abbulones offer a lengthy menu of hoagies, pizzas, pastas and even wings, burgers and salads. The result is a jumble of higher and lower concepts. Antipasto includes wonderful sopressata (a dry-cured salami) — and iceberg lettuce. Cheez Whiz fries coexist with "hot cherry pepper shooters" — a sophisticated twist of sharp provolone and prosciutto that was one of my favorite tastes. Bruschetta is offered, and so are chicken fingers.

The top-selling hoagie is the Italian Stallion (in the original Rocky, Sylvester Stallone eats at Pat's). For $4.65, it combines delicate prosciutto, well-marbled sopressata, pepper ham, Genoa salami and gorgeous mahogany-red capicolla, a thin-sliced smoked sausage. The aged pink, red, red-pink and red-orange layers are a treat to the eye as well as the tongue. Made on their own, crisper roll, the hoagies are dressed with olive oil, oregano, lettuce, tomatoes, onions and hot or sweet peppers.

Several Italian favorites — and one Philadelphia Dutch — are offered with provolone on baguettes: veal or chicken Parmesan, Italian sweet sausages, meatballs and marinara, or scrapple. The latter was unavailable when I visited, which perhaps is as well, since scrapple is made from leftover pig bits. The meatballs are spicy, the marinara mild and sweet.

Pizza is perhaps not competition-quality but nothing to kick out of bed, with a thick and bready crust. Crossing species, you can order pizza with American cheese, steak and onions, no sauce. Sound familiar?

Philadelphians are as committed to their other childhood favorites as they are to cheesesteak, so those exiled to Michigan drive miles to pick up Tastykakes and a case of Frank's Soda or Birch beer. "That's the trifecta," says Sherri — "cheesesteak, a Tastykake and Frank's black cherry soda." Frank's grape and creme sodas are fine examples of that genre, and Birch beer is a slightly more carbonated version of root beer.

As for Tastykakes, I believe you'd have to acquire a taste for prepackaged cupcakes early in life.

Though you order at a window and most customers carry out, Joey's is not fast food. All the sauces are housemade; the tomatoes and basil for the very creditable bruschetta are grown in Sherri's garden. Be prepared to wait while your order is prepared.

And yet prices are close to fast-food levels. $4.45 for a cheesesteak? Like Rocky, there'll be sequels here.

Jane Slaughter dines for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].