I’ve got a beef with South Philly. Now, don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends live in South Philadelphia. My bias stems from the fact that at some point during the city of Philadelphia’s illustrious history, South Philly stole the cheesesteak.
It was a sad, dark day, my friends. Ben Franklin rolled over in his grave, Betsy Ross jammed a sewing needle in her eye, and the lively culinary debate over the city’s best cheesesteak was reduced to that stale, moth-eaten Pat’s vs. Geno’s rivalry.The (cheesesteak) revolution will not be ghettoizedIt’s the activist in me who set out to broaden this debate and reclaim the cheesesteak for Philadelphia neighborhoods everywhere. In the Great Northwest there are several pretenders to the cheesesteak throne, but to my palate, the one that takes the, uh, steak is Pagano’s Steaks & Hoagies at 76th & Ogontz Avenues. Pagano’s has been in business for forty-one years and, according to owner Alexandro Pagano, has the potential to be around another forty or so more.In his office at the rear of the shop, Pagano spins a tale about the honeybee that makes honey from the day it’s born until the day it dies. So when asked about retirement after a forty-plus-year-run his response is, ‘who knows’? “I might be like that bee,” he says. He might keep working right up until the end.A meaty historyPagano comes from a long line of worker bees. His grandfather came to America from Europe in 1905 and his uncles followed after World War II. They were originally butchers by trade but by the late 60’s when Pagano arrived from Greece the family had segued into the cheesesteak business. Pagano was introduced to this business as a teenager. “I started by mopping the floors, peeling onions and oiling the machines,” he explains. The “machines” are the delicatessen-style meat slicers used to shave beef into thin slices. It wasn’t long before Pagano worked his way up to cook and then manager. He eventually took over the business from his uncle William and went on to open several other shops under different names across the city. A matter of beefBut the Ogontz Avenue location retains the family name. Pagano tells me proudly that they still slice all meat on the premises, a holdover from the family’s history as butchers. I’m thrilled that we’re finally talking meat, which is important since this is after all a matter of beef. The meat here is domestic, not imported, and it’s usually rib-eye or top round. Regardless, it’s always extra lean and cooked on the grill in a solution of 10% olive oil and 90% vegetable oil. “Other places use pork fat,” Pagano says. But he doesn’t have to sell me. “Relax”, I say, “you had me at rib-eye”. Pagano is kind enough to pull a cut of rib-eye from the fridge, slice it fresh in one of the shop’s shiny chrome machines, and make me a cheesesteak himself. He grabs an Amoroso’s roll, slices it lengthwise and slots in a layer of Provolone cheese. But anyone who’s ever had a Pagano’s cheesesteak knows that the roll is secondary, a humble frame for a beefy masterpiece. Carnivore’s delightMy cheesesteak arrives loaded with fried onions and mushrooms at my request. I could go the extra mile and add sweet or hot peppers but the roll already looks strained under the weight of all that meat. I douse the whole thing liberally with ketchup and get down to eating. It’s one of those sandwiches that’s so good you’d eat it standing—the idea of stopping to find a chair an unnecessary waste of time. Take that South Philly, I think as I chew. You tried to corner the market on a local culinary treasure that, much like scrapple, belongs to all Philadelphians. You tried to perpetuate a gastronomic monopoly the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the days of Ma Bell. Well, shame on you SoPhi. You’re old enough to know better, and I for one will not stand for it. I will take to the streets and call upon my fellow man to join me. I will rouse the rabble and together we will chew and swallow our way to freedom for all. Here I am waving my greasy, little fist in the air. That’s one small bite for man, one giant leap for cheesesteak in neighborhoods north of South Street.