Eats: Queen of the Cheesesteaks

Watch out, Pat’s, Geno’s, Steve’s and Jim’s. A new woman on the block wants to bust up the cheesesteak boys’ club

“I know there are some sour people out there that probably hate me, but if they met me, I don’t believe they would hate me as a person,” she says, adding, in a half-joking way that means she’s not really joking, “They hate me because I’m their competition.”

Nicole Cinquanto grew up in Mayfair, attended St. Hubert, and spent weekends traveling with her parents to watch her brother play hockey with the “Little Flyers.” (He’s now in the Secret Service.) In her teens, she was “the kind of girl who dates the quarterback.” When she couldn’t settle on a major at Kutztown, she left college, preferring to compete in corporate America. Eventually she joined Re/Max as a realtor. She was 28 and had just bought herself a townhouse when she met her husband, Dan DiZio, on a blind date.

This was right around the time Dan was growing his corner soft-pretzel business into the 100-plus-franchise Philly Pretzel Factory. It was a crazy period at the Factory, so between listing appointments, Nicole pitched in. Her two jobs had her working 70-to-80-hour weeks. Nonetheless, she was kind of bored. “I was like, ‘You know, I need to do something else now,’” she says. Somewhere between giving birth to their son, Danny IV, and obtaining her New Jersey real estate license so she’d have something to do during summer weekends at the Margate Shore house, she decided to become a cheesesteak entrepreneur.

To DiZio, Philly’s official foodstuff seemed, oddly enough, romantic, and, even more oddly, like an untapped business opportunity. “Every Friday or Saturday night, Dan and I would go out and eat cheesesteaks, like everybody does,” she remembers. Along the way, their Mayfairian date night turned into a taste test. “We’d go to different places and say, ‘Well, they have a good roll,’ or ‘They have good meat.’ We’d like the way one did their cheese, because places like Pat’s or Geno’s do slices of American, and others do the melted American.” It was yummy. It was fun. It felt real. It did not, however, feel fresh. She says, “You think of a cheesesteak place, and you think: dirty, greasy fat guys, right?”

Right. Philadelphia’s cheesesteak universe has largely been a guys-only place, and it got Nicole to thinking. If she had a shop, it would be as spic-and-span as her Churchville home. If she had a shop, the workers would be like her, ambitious locals who wanted to be part of a growing business, cashiers who were less Soup Nazi and more Capital Grille, clean-cut grill cooks who sautéed with a smile. If she had a shop, people would know it didn’t belong to a dirty, greasy guy who could use a Pilates class and anger-management training. Plus, how hard could it be to make a sandwich?