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Road Eats: Sarcone's Deli

Forget the cheesesteak and head to this Philly haunt

Posted: Friday October 21, 2005 3:38PM; Updated: Monday October 24, 2005 12:48PM
Road Eats: Sarcone's Deli

You can bet it didn't factor into the eternal decisions over where to situate Philadelphia's four pro teams. But planting the Eagles, Sixers, Flyers and Phillies in the same complex comes with this unmistakable benefit: proximity to some of the country's best take-out food.

Within earshot of T.O., within the silhouettes cast by Iverson's bling, the streets of South Philly are clogged arteries, so to speak, coagulated with all manner of sandwich shops and Italian delis. The fare is ideal for tailgates or for hiding in your hoodie and then eating at your seats. Put simply, there is no reason to overpay Philadelphia stadium concessionaires.

The unmistakable king of Philly eats is the cheesesteak, that nutritionally bankrupt confection of razor-thin low-grade steak slathered with cheese whiz or provolone and -- you know, for vegetables and all -- sautéed onions. Like fistic foes standing toe-to-toe, the two best-known haunts, Pat's and Geno's are diagonally are across from each other in heart of South Philly. The Geno's versus Pat's debate is akin to the Roe vs. Wade of Philly culinary controversies, and on game day, both joints have lines of partisans snaking around the block.

Here's a quicker, tastier and, perhaps not least, healthier alternative. Make an end-run to Sarcone's Deli, which sits unobtrusively, a few blocks down 9th St. on the corner of Fitzwater St. Last month, my brother, some of his pals and I stockpiled Sarcone's peerless hoagies before heading to an Eagles game. The lunch was more memorable than the football. And the Eagles won.

The foundation for any sandwich is, of course, the bread. With its own (and more famous) family-owned bakery a few doors down, Sarcone's serves rolls that are simply perfect, crunchy on the outside, chewy but not excessively doughy on the inside. Even when the hoagies are then drenched with oil and balsamic vinegar, it doesn't soak through the crust. (Sarcone's hours of operations are "10 a.m. 'til we run outta bread.")

As for selection, essentially you can't go wrong. The meats and cheeses -- most purchased fresh from the Italian market a block away -- are first-rate. Our platter came with three monstrous sandwiches. The "Uncle Louie" is a mix of remarkably lean turkey, sautéed spinach, fresh mozzarella and all manner of Italian herbs. Voted Philly's top sandwich (by whom we were never told), the "Sonny's Special" is a stack of roast beef, turkey, laden with roasted peppers, provolone and garlic. The "Old Fashion" features shaved prosciutto, hot sopressata, sharp provolone.

The three were cut up so we could sample from each. As far as we're concerned, they were interchangeably good. One holdout in our group ordered an "Italian Veggie Hoagie," which he claimed was mix of sautéed eggplant, mushrooms and pepper imbedded with fresh mozzarella. Somehow, coming as it did from Sarcone's, it didn't seem nearly as wimpy.

Straddling two centuries (the 19th and 20th), the Italian section of South Philly is awash in charm. But you won't find much if it at Sarcone's. There is a certain, shall we say, minimalism, to the place. There are essentially no tables. The walls are covered with inevitable Philadelphia sports paraphernalia. A framed autographed glossy of big-league umpire Eric Gregg -- not the worst choice to recommend an eating establishment -- hangs cock-eyed on the wall. The one non-food item for sale is a CD by Sonny Averona. In short, there is no indication that a day has elapsed since 1955.

But if Sarcone's is trapped in another era, so, too, are the prices. Hoagies (pronounced "Hay-owe-gies" in that distinctive Philly accent) start at $4.50 and even the "mediums" (which would reside squarely in the "large" category outside of South Philly) won't set you back more than $6. The platter we ordered feeds 12 to 15 and runs $44.99. When we called in our order, the endearing woman working behind the counter felt obliged to warn us that "with drinks and tax, it'll be more like $50."

As for the clientele, it's a mix of all colors, shapes and sizes. Neighborhood folks. Center City lawyers on their lunch break. Moms with kids. The type of guys who would fare well in Wing Bowl. As two burly Eagles fans in front of me in the pick-up line waited for their order to come up, one noted that South Philly's favorite celluloid son, Rocky Balboa, sure would have loved to eat at Sarcone's.

"Yeah," the friend responded mindlessly. "But then he'd never have made weight."

At that point the first guy started laughing and, like a typical WIP-listening denizen of the 700-level seats, had a harsh rejoinder: "Rocky's a heavyweight, you idiot. Heavyweight's don't gotta worry about their weight. You f---ing idiot."

Sarcone's Deli
734 S. 9th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19147


Sports Illustrated senior writer Jon Wertheim covers tennis for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.