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.  

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  • Disgusted

    Reading this makes me sick, she’s working 70-80 hrs weeks, has a child and is bored and needs to work more, is her poor child an accessory that she’s already tossed aside?

  • Jesse

    If her husband has a hand in it, they will bankrupt an entire new market of people as he did with the Philly Pretzel Franchise. They promise to deliver a profitable business model but wind up crumbling sitting inside an asteroid sized pit of debt. This could be a new way to rip of the unassuming eager person who just wants to be in business for themself and not work for corp. America any more. These are the people that the Dizio’s prey. Be careful everyone, be very careful.

  • Regina

    I have never tried and wit or witout steak and after reading this article, I NEVER EVER will. It makes me sick that she stole from business owners who put love, sweat, and tears into their steak shops!

  • Anonymous

    There’s something seriously wrong with this chick! Who would admit to STALKING other businesses? And stealing 2 of their cooks and maybe their recipe for the cheese! She may become the queen of steaks, but I’m sure she’ll be making some major enemies along the way.

  • Anonymous

    I can’t speak for Geno’s or Pat’s, but the guys at Steve’s are always super nice. They don’t expect you to know exactly how to order and they always thank you. I just don’t understand why she has to bad mouth all the other steak shops. Those people have worked hard for what they have. They weren’t handed the money from their rich husbands!!

  • Anonymous

    many different opinions here…mine is that business is sometimes cut-throat. she has made a name for herself and is going to make a lot of money. like it or not, looks like her steaks and pretzels are here to stay.

  • Nicole

    Apparently someone thinks Wit or Witout is great – they won Best of Philly the 1st 8 months in business, she didn’t steal cheese sauce from anyone – it’s simple you grade cheese down and melt it. She doesn’t bad mouth steak shops she actually thinks the best of all of the around. You should re-read the article, it’s other of the other shops bad mouthing her. She didn’t open the business from a rich husband. She doesn’t abandon her son, in fact he spends a lot of time with his mother. She is a great mother. For all you haters out there you should stop in Wit or Witout and try it out, knowing Nicole she would give you a steak on the house. Introduce yourself, you mind find she’s not exactly the woman you are portraying her to be.

  • Anonymous

    I agree, I haven’t talked to her for years, but being facebook friends with her you can clearly tell that her and her husband are good parents. Talk about the business aspect all you want, but talking about someone as a parent is a little too personal.

  • Susan

    Nicole has done very well for herself. I think it’s wonderful she can manage a family and run a successful business. And by the way, that’s the best Philly cheesesteak I’ve ever eaten!

  • Victoria

    There are alot of envious & jealous people out there. God Bless her! Maybe the people who have time to write comments might have too much time on their hands!! The steaks are very good. Also, if Rita’s Water Ice made millions and bought a steak franchise maybe that’s saying something!Another thought is that she is providing jobs for people. Maybe these critics should get jobs.

  • Sandra

    I left the Philly area thirty years ago.I lived in Hawaii, California, Salt lake City, Texas,and Florida.For years I’d order a cheesesteak and was served a thick piece of tough meat on a lousy roll.Let’s face it.Nicole at Wit or Witout discovered the right combination and produced a mouthwatering delicious steak. She stole nothing from anyone. Some of you just can’t handle the competition because she is a female entrepreneur.Right now my mouth is watering.Makes me want to jump on a plane for another great steak.

  • kim

    The cheesesteaks are delicious. You go girl spread the love..

  • Brigid

    Congratulations to Nicole and her husband. Only in America is a woman able to be first and foremost a great Mother, a fabulous wife, and own her own business. Only in America, are the bumbling idiots whom have bashed Nicole, able to write publicly about her and her cheesesteak shop. I have yet to try “Wit or Witout” , but I am looking forward to visiting, and shaking Nicole’s hand and say, “My Mother worked and I turned out ok”. You go girl!!!

  • K

    First off the first few comments on this page are all bull shit! First off the people at steve’s are not always nice. Their rude and slobs. Secondly, only one person invented the Philly Cheese Steak and it may not have been Nicole, but it wasn’t Steve, Pat, Joey or Jim. Everyone took someone else’s idea and attempted to improve it. However, some people are just jealous that Wit or Witout did it the right way. By the way Steve, why are you always anonymos on your comments, man up and while your at it try paying your employees on the books!

  • Ben

    A lot of angry folks ranting and raving on this thread. Could it be a jealous competitor in disguise? P.S. The cheesesteaks are delicious.

  • Lester

    It’s nice to have a good cheesesteak place in the northeast that isn’t next to a rundown abortion mill, a vacant building that attracts pests, and a dive bar. Wit or Witout has an excellent cheesesteak, easily as good as the nearest competitor, and without the sleazy atmosphere and drunk patrons.

  • Regina
  • keith

    Franchise’s don’t always work, problem is they give them out to anyone with down money. I built a sucessful business that I took over from my father and just build on it. All good idea’s came from someone else, she is just trying to perfect something she likes, the way she wants too. I have build many of my idea’s from someone elses thats the american way. And as for being board I wish I had kids to take me away from my buisness, if she’s working 70 plus house then her help must suck. With a sucessfull business you need to run the business not let it run you and thats what she is doing!!

  • stephanie

    that’s Philly for ya…always hating on someone who makes it big bc they themselves didnt think of it first!

  • Brian

    After being named “Best of Philly,” I gave it a shot. While not bad, it was quite average. How was this named “Best of Philly?” Even this article (being the very same publication) says “the steaks aren’t bad.” With all the “great” steak shops in town (and I don’t mean Pat’s or Geno’s), why did Philly Mag name this place as the best???

  • Mike

    I didn’t know any of this about the owner but I will say Wit or Witout is the BEST cheesesteak especially for the money I’ve had and I’ve had them all. And going to the NE for it, the stop on Red Lion is far closer than having to go to South Philly.

  • tarrah

    Nicole is a very family oriented woman. I look up to her because of her accomplishments. She has a family and a business, not many people can handle that. The steaks a VERY good. The shop is clean and inviting, and the customer service is great! You are never greeted without a smile.

    Nicole, I wish you THE BEST of luck with everything. Keep it up!! You got this girl !! :)

  • Loretta

    I own a retail store in an industry that is highly specialized (and competitive). Wannabe business owners that stalk other businesses and steal their ideas are PARASITES. If you’re so great, use your own ideas. Stalking delivery trucks? What are you, 12? I hope you go bankrupt!

  • RickTufano

    Number 1. Everyone knows Steve’s is the best. No.2 Pat’s & Geno’s way over rated… both not worth the drive. 3. Wit or witout gives steves a Run for their $. an Why are all you people anonymous? I don’t know nicole.. but like her I too run a business here in Philly… an People will ALWAYS HATE ON YOU. Especially if you’re doing well. I keep going back to wit or witout an the last one I had was the best one I’ve had in my LIFE… it was a sunday night.