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

Turns out it’s easy — if you’ve got the right ingredients. So while Dan made the pretzels, Nicole made the rounds. “I spent a lot of time going to lunch and dinner at cheesesteak places,” she says. “I’d just sit there, eating real slow, watching everything they do, scoping the place out.” She preferred meat sliced like Geno’s, not chopped on the grill like Pat’s. She decided on three cheeses: provolone, Whiz and melted American. She wanted a roll that was soft, but not too soft. She perfected her family’s recipe for long hots. She realized some shops were diluting their best-selling product by offering hamburgers, chicken fingers, roast pork, hoagies. She decided in her  shop, she’d have a simple menu: cheesesteaks, chicken cheesesteaks and fries.

Sometimes she’d sit in her white Lexus SUV, listening to Q102, watching other stores’ deliveries. That’s how she figured out one of her competitors was guarding which type of beef he uses by having his meat man use the boxes of another distributor. (Eventually, the slab’s shape gave its identity away.)

Steve Iliescu, owner of Steve’s Prince of Steaks, whose original location is 1.3 miles away from DiZio’s — and whose cheesesteaks, aficionados often say, taste just like Wit or Witout’s — notes that her visits didn’t go unnoticed. “She and her boyfriend [sic] lived in my store for six months,” he says. While there, the couple made an impression on more than just the Prince. Two of Iliescu’s cooks left Steve’s and soon after joined WoW. Iliescu has his suspicions about where DiZio came up with her melted American cheese sauce, which he says he invented.

Sneaking around lunch counters and delivery trucks, hiring ex-employees and re-creating cheese sauces — this may smack of corporate espionage, but it’s not. Recipes for commonly made foods like cheese-steaks aren’t generally considered trade secrets. DiZio was just doing what hundreds of enterprising restaurateurs (um, Stephen Starr) had done before her: learning from someone who’s doing it well, and opening a restaurant where you try to make it better. All’s fair, right?

Iliescu says he feels no heat, and breaks into a husky, Geator-esque patter: “I am the best above all the rest. I will take anybody to the hoop. Let them have a true contest on the field of battle, in the shadow of the stadiums.”

What can be hard for a veteran cheesesteaker like Iliescu to understand about the Wit or Witout model is that it’s not about dominating in a cook-off, and it’s definitely not about creating an oversize personality. DiZio’s goal is simple: Serve Philadelphia’s favored fast food in an environment that she and Dan would want to eat in, a place that feels authentic without projecting attitude. Wit or Witout will always welcome the pajama-bottomed masses of Great Northeasters. But it also wouldn’t be an unreasonable venue for a casual business lunch — and it certainly wouldn’t make your out-of-town guests feel intimidated when ordering. And if it brings in loads of money and puts one in the win column for women in the corporate game of girls vs. boys, you won’t hear DiZio objecting.