EARLY LAST AUGUST, Philadelphia magazine got a phone call. Phone calls aren’t unusual at the magazine, especially in early August, when their volume increases exponentially in response to our annual “Best of Philly” issue. Some of these excess calls are thank-yous. Others aren’t. This particular call fit into the latter category.
The caller, who wouldn’t give his name, wanted to share his feelings about the mag’s choice for “Best Cheesesteak.” The winner was Wit or Witout, a new spot near Frankford and Cottman. The caller was apparently not a fan, and what began as constructive, slightly coarse criticism turned into a rant, then a rage, and then threats. He said he could eliminate Wit or Witout if he wanted to. He called Wit or Witout’s 34-year-old owner, Nicole DiZio, “a girl” who just wanted to “franchise,” spitting out “franchise” like a curse. He said that girl was going down.
To the locals who consume and vend it, Philadelphia’s official sandwich can be an intensely personal matter. Your cheese-steak preference reveals your taste buds’ proclivities, sure, but also your family tradition, neighborhood pride, possibly your idea of patriotism — and likely your concept of authenticity. Are you Pat’s? Geno’s? George’s? Campo’s? Whiz? Provolone? Do you head to Tony Luke’s before the game — or line up at Jim’s after the bars? Have you nibbled Four Seasons’ cheesesteak spring roll, ordered Domino’s “Philly Cheese Steak” pie, stocked up on Steak-umms, splurged when Barclay Prime had a $100 version? Tell us who makes your sandwich, and we’ll tell you who you are.
So without giving too much credit to an anonymous phone harasser, the jerk had a point. If a cheesesteak novice can open up shop, snap her fingers, count herself among the industry’s one-named power players, the men with grill marks for battle scars and onion grease for sweat, and we locals flock in — what does that say about who we are?
For all our cheesesteak passion, Philly has never turned out a big-time franchise operation like, say, Massachusetts has with Dunkin’ Donuts, or Seattle with Starbucks. Even our most vaunted steak-stand heroes haven’t expanded beyond a few shops — Steve’s Prince of Steaks has three, Jim’s has four, Geno’s and Pat’s are still one apiece. But if anyone can do it, it’s Nicole DiZio, backed by her pretzel-shop-franchising husband and, more recently, by franchisee John Tumolo, the guy who brought a Rita’s Water Ice to a street corner near you. This trio thinks Philadelphia needs a sleeker, cleaner, nicer, ego-less version of a corner steak stand. They just may be right.
PERCHED ON A gray counter stool inside Wit or Witout’s second location, one wintry week before the shop is due to open, Nicole DiZio is definitely not the cheesesteak vendor next door. Today, she’s wearing a pair of boot-cut Citizens jeans that must be a size 25, pale pink lip gloss that matches a pale pink manicure, and a pair of diamond double C’s on her earlobes. Her long California-blond hair is blown out. Her eyebrows form two perfect parentheses. When asked about her rivals, her tanned forehead furrows, and her hazel eyes narrow.