PHILADELPHIA — The best food in Philly comes on bread. For decades, two sandwiches have ruled the city: cheesesteak and roast pork. While the Philly cheesesteak has made it to Ecuador (where a stellar “American with” can be eaten beachside in Puerto Ayora), the Philly roast pork is done well only at a few old-time spots in its city of
origin. One of those is Tommy DiNic’s at Reading Terminal Market.
To find DiNic’s in the market, look for its high maroon and yellow signs and then take a seat at the marbled green soapstone bar. Mounted above the 18 stools that wrap in an L around the open kitchen, a plywood menu lists six Italian-style sandwiches, priced $8-$11. Start with the roast pork.
A long roll comes sagging under thinly sliced, slow-cooked meat. Bread is baked daily at Sarcone’s Bakery, an old South Philly establishment. If you choose toppings wisely, broccoli rabe will sit in a leafy row on top of the hot pork, and buried under the tender meat will be half-melted, razor-sharp provolone. Here is the classic Philly roast pork: meat, roll, rabe, and provolone, with optional long hot peppers. Word on the sandwich has gone beyond Philly in the past decade. Recently, the version at DiNic’s was named the Travel Channel’s Best Sandwich in America.
DiNic’s goes back a century. Tommy Nicolosi, who co-owns the shop with his son, Joe, traces the family business back to his grandfather, Gaetano, a Sicilian immigrant and butcher. By the 1950s, Tommy’s father and uncles were making roast pork sandwiches using an oven in the garage. Tommy opened a sandwich shop with his cousin Franky DiClaudio in the ’70s. (DiNic’s is a union of their surnames.) Soon he moved to Reading Terminal. Today, with Joe captaining the kitchen, DiNic’s sells hundreds of sandwiches a day.
“People love pork, but they eat it in small cuts like bacon,” Tommy Nicolosi says. “We cook large cuts of meat. We make a sandwich right from scratch and it’s the highest quality we can produce.” Surprisingly, the roast pork sandwich has a mild taste. The pork itself has only a slight aroma, from its cooking juices of stock, garlic, onion, rosemary, and pigskin, and isn’t bursting with flavor.
Instead, the pork takes a supporting role. Its delicate flavor melds with the bitter broccoli rabe, the pungent cheese, the gravy-soaked roll. It’s a sandwich with finesse and balance. Adding fiery long hots would be a crime.
Spicy peppers pair better with the Italian sausage sandwich. Links are made two stands over, at Martin’s Quality Meats and Sausage. Sandwiches at DiNic’s can be topped with peppers (hot or sweet), greens (spinach or rabe), and a delightfully funky provolone, which should be ordered with every sandwich on the menu, including the meatball, sauced in a marinara with a hint of sweetness. And the Italian-style pulled pork, a hand-carved, wine-sauced South Philly cousin of the barbecue sandwich. At DiNic’s, under the red-shaded lights hanging from the market’s exposed industrial ceiling, sandwiches glisten with gravy.
Advice for newcomers: Don’t get the long hots. Do get the brisket of beef. Cooked for eight hours, the brisket has a baroque, meaty flavor that is no finesse, all power. Someday it may be awarded the best sandwich in America.
Joe and Tommy Nicolosi have the hard-boiled mentality that clings to the better Philly sandwich shops. The two depend on tradition but are engaged in, as Joe says, “a constant pursuit of how we can be better.” Recently, that meant switching from pre-cut broccoli rabe to buying the vegetable whole. “There’s a lot of thought here and that never stops,” says Tommy Nicolosi. “I’m 65 years old, and I’m still experimenting.”
Though the shop has been updated (sleek bar top, wood-paneled walk-in fridge, an airy space in an esteemed market), the appeal of DiNic’s is rough and throwback. More than anything, a DiNic’s roast pork reminds the diner of a time gone by, when Philadelphia had a large Italian-American population who learned to cook in the old country.
Nicolosi has a philosophy about this. “The secret ingredient is fundamentals. Those fundamentals were laid down centuries ago. If you want to call that old school, fine.
“But we didn’t invent garlic or rosemary.”
Terminal Market, 1136 Arch St., Philadelphia, 215-923-6175, www.tommydinics.com
Chris Malloy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.