Last Summer, We Honored My Late Father-in-Law by Eating Hoagies

For a food-obsessed father and Philadelphian, our feast at A & LP was an ideal tribute and a new tradition.

The two main things anyone will tell you about my father-in-law, Tony, is he loved to eat and he loved to talk. For the last year and a half of his life, up until we lost him in January of 2022, he couldn’t do either.

The emergency intubation that severed his vocal cords, reducing his booming voice to a rasp, also effectively severed his ability to eat or drink safely. After getting smacked with an NPO (medical code for “nothing by mouth”) designation, he reluctantly agreed to have a feeding tube placed. That’s a devastating situation for an ordinary person, let alone for Tony, a six-foot-three Italian American roofer and Wissinoming native who started armies of vegetable seeds in Styrofoam cups every spring, fried too much seafood on Christmas Eve, and could draw a map from memory of every bakery, deli and hoagie haunt in Northeast Philly.

Hoagies — they were his favorite.

When my wife was growing up in Bucks County, every Halloween, her grandparents — Tony’s parents — would drive up from Cheltenham Avenue in their elephant-gray 1982 Chrysler New Yorker with bags of bread from DePalma’s and lunch meat from DeNofa’s. While my mother-in-law did Halloween makeup on the kids, Tony’s mom laid out the provisions and went to work assembling mammoth Italian hoagies. My wife remembers her grandmother’s immaculate nails, red or coral (lipstick-coordinated), fluttering over the packs of capicola and provolone. There was no trick-or-treating till you finished your hoagie.

My brother-in-law revived this Halloween tradition a few years ago. By 2021, Tony couldn’t partake, but he still showed up. He always showed up. He carved the turkey that Thanksgiving. He was merry at Christmas, while the rest of us fawned over mac-and-cheese and lemon tart. He went to parties and cookouts. When he could manage it, he’d sit at the table with us, and sometimes he’d hang in the living room, watching reruns of Blue Bloods with one of our Chihuahuas in his lap.

Since he passed, my wife says every “first” is a Band-Aid to rip off. Father’s Day was the first big holiday without Tony, and we debated whether to ignore it or underscore it. We considered pretending it was any other June day, but that felt hollow. We discussed gathering the extended circle for a memorial of sorts, but that felt heavy.

I don’t remember who proposed Hoagies for Tony, but honoring him via his favorite sandwiches clicked. So on Father’s Day, my wife, mother-in-law and brothers-in-law ordered lunch from A & LP, the pizzeria and deli whose neon red capitals have lorded over the corner of 15th and New Jersey in North Wildwood since 1953. We unwrapped our collection of Italians-with-everythings, dripping roast porks, and impeccable cutlet rabes, and shared around the dining table covered with Diet Coke, cheddar-and-sour-cream Ruffles, sunblock and sesame seeds.

For a food-obsessed father and Philadelphian, our feast peppered with lots of “He’d have loved this” was an ideal tribute and a new tradition born, one with space to accommodate sadness and celebration. A hoagie contains multitudes. So do we.

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Published as “Hoagies for Tony” in the February 2023 issue of Philadelphia magazine.