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The History of Philadelphia’s Italian Roast Pork Sandwich

By on Tuesday, September 26th, 2023 at 4:19 pm | 2,869 views

Philadelphia Italian roast pork sandwich from DiNic's in Reading Terminal Market with provolone cheese and broccoli rabe on a sesame seeded bun

Philadelphia might be best known for its cheesesteak, but there’s a secret sandwich lurking in the city of Brotherly love. The Philadelphia Italian Roast Pork sandwich is a local delicacy created in the city a century ago by Italian immigrants, and it’s since become a local favorite that’s hard to find outside the city.

The same shops making Philadelphia’s iconic cheesesteak, another Italian American creation, also typically sell the roast pork sandwich. While the cheesesteak has since gone onto become a nationally known food, the Italian roast pork sandwich has remained a regional dish, similar to how Chicago’s Italian Beef sandwich had remained relatively unknown outside that city for decades. The primary reason anyone outside of Chicago even knows about the Italian beef is a result of the first season the hit television series The Bear, which is set in an Italian beef sandwich shop. The roast pork sandwich hasn’t benefitted from that type of publicity.

The modern Italian roast pork sandwich is available in tourist destinations like the Reading Terminal Market, a downtown institution turned modern food hall, but also in sandwich shops in south Philadelphia, a predominantly Italian American enclave.

The basic recipe begins with an Italian hero roll, known in Philadelphia as a hoagie. The sandwich is stuffed with roast pork, broccoli rabe, and provolone cheese, and often available wherever Philly’s cheesesteaks are sold. The pork drops with fat and juices, and this soaks through the bread turning the sandwich into a marvel of flavor.

Much like Chicago’s Italian Beef, the roast pork sandwich is the product of wedding catering. The first iteration of the sandwich is credited to Domenico Bucci, an immigrant from Abrruzo. According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Bucci arrived through Ellis Island in 1918. After settling in Philadelphia, he ran a catering business from his home, and then from a bus. He sold sandwiches and catered events like weddings.

By 1930, he opened a stand selling two sandwiches: a hoagie with meatballs and the original philly pork sandwich. He named the place after his son, John, although it was affectionately known by regulars as the pork shack. The original shop was just that, a shack, without much room inside for two or three people. The triangular lot was leased from the B&O railroad and is still home to John’s Roast Pork.

The original pork sandwich was somewhat simpler – pork on a roll. It was Bucci’s grandson John who added sharp provolone and spinach to the sandwich in the 1970s. But the evolution of the sandwich didn’t stop there. Competitors upped the game as well, adding broccoli rabe in place of spinach. John’s still serves their sandwich with spinach, assuming they don’t run out for the day.

Philadelphia Italian roast pork sandwich from DiNic's in Reading Terminal Market with provolone cheese and broccoli rabe on a sesame seeded bun

There are other places to find sandwich, like DiNic’s, located in the Reading Market Terminal. The indoor market opened in 1893 and today serves as a food hall and shopping mall. DiNic’s has made a name for themselves selling pork sandwiches stuffed with broccoli rabe, pork and provolone. These massive sandwiches are popular, but DiNic’s also serves a roast beef sandwich.

DiNic’s is the product of an Italian family with deep roots in the food and meat business.
Patriarch Gaetano Nicolosi first opened his butcher shop in South Philadelphia in 1918. The family lived above the shop and his sons helped run it.

The Nicolosi’s also had a large oven that friends and neighbors would use to cook their roasts, but this led Gaetano to the idea of selling sandwiches from his garage. Eventually Gaetano’s son Thomas “Tommy” Nicolosi and cousin Frankie DiClaudio took over cooking the meat and selling sandwiches.

They formalized the business in 1977 with the name DiNic’s a combination of their two surnames. The two cousins eventually split the business, with Frank opening DiNic’s Tavern, and Tommy opening DiNic’s sandwich shop. Today, Tommy runs the shop with his son Joey.

Philadelphia Italian roast pork sandwich from DiNic's in Reading Terminal Market with provolone cheese and broccoli rabe on a sesame seeded bun being assembled by a staff member

Another spot famous for the Italian Pork Sandwich is George’s Sandwich shop in the heart of Philadelphia’s Italian Market. The Italian Market is a section of 9th Street lined with Italian restaurants and shops with an emphasis on food. The shop has been operating since 1936 selling hot sandwiches like tripe, ground veal, and spicy veal tongue.

The shop was founded by George Vellios who immigrated from Greece in 1908. He first started selling sandwiches from curb stand in front of Lorenzo’s Pizza, a shop owned by a family member who was also named George. The shop passed down to subsequent generations of George’s.

George's Sandwich Shop has been selling sandwiches in the Italian Market of south Philadelphia since 1936 -- the shop was renovated in 2018

Then tragedy struck in 2017 when Mark Onorato, the third generation to run the shop and affectionately know as George, died suddenly. He had been battling cancer but actually died of a sepsis infection caused by treatment. The shop temporarily shut down, and nobody knew it’s future.

Jon Vellios, the original George’s great-grandson took over after Mark’s death. Before reopening, Vellios decided the shop needed to under some modernization to bring it up to code. According to Mike Newall at The Philadelphia Inquirer, the shop was modernized but the menu was more or less unchanged except for the addition of a meatless sandwich and the Roma sandwich, a special made with pork and veal. The Roma sandwich acnkowledges the local Roma community that had been long time customers. George’s, and Willie’s, another sandwich shop that once was across the street, were the go-to spot for east coast Romani people.

Throughout Philadelphia, other variations of the sandwich can be found at both upscale restaurants and local shops like George’s. It’s hard to find the pork sandwich outside Philadelphia – but New York does have one shop where the sandwich can be found. Fedoroff’s Roast Pork, now located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn has a menu celebrating South Philadelphia offering cheesesteaks and pork sandiwches.

Fedoroff's of Brooklyn has a classic south Philly menu with cheesesteak, roast pork, and pork roll sandwiches in the heart of hipster Williamsburg Brooklyn

Dave Fedoroff and his wife Stella opened the shop as an homage to South Philadelphia in November 2016. The menu is short: Italian pork sandwiches, cheesesteaks, and Taylor Ham sandwiches – although true to Philadelphia traditions, the shop calls it Pork Roll. (The fries are also good, but not necessarily traditionally served with the sandwich.)

Fedoroff's of Brooklyn makes a Philadelphia Italian roast pork sandwich with provolone cheese and broccoli rabe on a sesame seeded bun

Fedoroff’s Roast Pork started off like so many trendy New York City restaurants at Smorgasburg, the outdoor food fair based originally in Williamsburg’s waterfront park. Dave Fedoroff had been working at Trader Joe’s and cooking 300 pounds of pork out of his Upper West Side apartment. He sold the sandwiches at a stand on weekends making enough money he believed the concept could be self-sufficient.

After the successful stint at Smorgashburg, Fedoroff’s opened as a brick-and-mortar shop. A location in the financial district on Courtland Street has since closed, but the Williamsburg location, a narrow shop with just a few counter spaces, is a regular and busy destination just off Bedford Avenue.

Where To Find Italian Roast Pork Sandwich

John’s Roast Pork
14 E Snyder Avenue
Philadelphia

DiNic’s
Reading Terminal Market
51 N 12th Street
Philadelphia

George’s Sandwich Shop
900 S 9th Street
Philadelphia

Fedoroff’s Roast Pork
178 N 10th Street
Brooklyn