Taste: Pig Out

The Other White Meat is on a roll, and rocking our sandwich scene

An Italian-style roast pork sandwich sounds simple enough: You lay provolone on an Italian roll and add well-seasoned pork. You sauté broccoli rabe or spinach with garlic until it’s soft, taking care to keep the green color bright. You spoon cooking juices over the meat. Done right, it’s

An Italian-style roast pork sandwich sounds simple enough: You lay provolone on an Italian roll and add well-seasoned pork. You sauté broccoli rabe or spinach with garlic until it’s soft, taking care to keep the green color bright. You spoon cooking juices over the meat. Done right, it’s some of the best eating money can buy for under $7.

While the cheesesteak will always be our iconic hot sandwich, the roast pork with provolone and greens has rocketed in popularity locally, and went high-profile in 2004 when Tony Luke’s opened a branch in Manhattan. The best ones start with fresh hams or shoulders, not processed meat. The bread component is critical, as evidenced by this menu note at Chickie’s Italian Deli in South Philadelphia: “Sarcone’s Bread is available Tuesday through Saturday on the large hoagie. All small hoagies and Monday large hoagies are served on Vilotti bread.”

Now that’s full disclosure.

Here, I’ve ranked 10 interpreters of the pork sandwich, from one (my favorite, DiNic’s) to 10. The criteria: the juiciest meat, the grandest greens, the sharpest provolone and the most righteous rolls.

1. DiNic’s, Reading Terminal Market
Watch the faces of meeting-numbed conventioneers who have chosen this lunch stand entirely at random as they bite into the two best pork sandwiches in the land: DiNic’s roast pork with sharp domestic provolone, and its irresistible pulled pork, gently simmered in red wine. Soon the lanyard-wearing Willie Lomans are moaning their approval, so enraptured that they don’t even notice the sandwich juices dripping on their Dockers and Rockports. Owner Tommy Nicolosi slow-roasts his meats for up to eight hours, and tucks the finished product into rolls from Cacia’s Bakery, adding a splash of the cooking juices. These were the messiest, most succulent sandwiches in my comparative tasting, requiring seven napkins for the roast pork alone. Greens are available, but I like roasted red peppers on the roast pork. I’m convinced that these magical sandwiches have the power to cure depression, fatten up Todd Pinkston, and reconcile warring nations. Even if you don’t agree, they still make a magnificent lunch (Reading Terminal Market, 12th and Arch streets; 215-923-6175).

2. Angelina’s Italian Kitchen, Pottstown
Heading west on Route 422 into a nasty thunderstorm, I wondered if this sandwich recommended by a colleague would be worth the round-trip drive of 70 miles. I had my answer when the waitress set down a perfect package of pulled-apart pork, sharp Italian provolone and sautéed-to-order spinach on a toasted 12-inch roll. This endearing 24-seat BYOB, with potted petunias flanking the front door, rooster-print tablecloths and gently worn captain’s chairs, bested some of the top big-city sandwich kings by getting every detail exactly right. Matt McGonigle, grandson of the restaurant’s namesake, roasts fresh hams with basil, garlic, red wine and olive oil, then shreds the meat by hand, giving the sandwich a chunky texture. McGonigle’s own preference is for broccoli rabe, but he serves the sandwich with spinach because his customers prefer less bitter greens. Red pepper flakes are omitted, also in deference to customer tastes. The result is anything but plain (864 East High Street, Pottstown; 610-705-1833).

3. Soprano’s Deli & Catering, Broomall
The entrancing aroma of fresh rosemary and an air of mystery define the pork sandwich at Soprano’s. Chef Armen — “I just go by Armen” — roasts fresh hams with fresh herbs, uses Italian provolone, puts a healthy amount of garlic in his broccoli rabe, and cradles it all in a brick-oven roll from South Philly. (From which bakery, he won’t say.) The sandwich is superb, but that’s just the everyday version. On the last Saturday of each month, Armen roasts a whole 130-pound pig with his secret spices and carves it to order in the dining room (3072 West Chester Pike, Broomall; 610-359-9355).

4. Tony Luke’s, South Philadelphia
Sharp, salty, garlicky and peppery, the lusty pork sandwich at Tony Luke’s slams the palate with in-your-face seasonings — no wonder the only size soda they sell is large, and you’ll certainly need two. There’s no nuance whatsoever, which is why we love it so. But the sturdy roll with a cardboard-textured crust was a letdown, particularly because a sign says the rolls are baked on the premises daily. And I thought the famously brusque service might be losing its edge when the ­super-efficient cashier called me “Hon.” Then she turned around and screamed “DIET!” to submit my soda order, and all felt right with the world again (39 East Oregon Avenue; 215-551-5725).

5. John’s Roast Pork, South Philadelphia
Our survey’s heavyweight champion is this massive masterpiece, bulging with subtly seasoned meat, a thick layer of medium-sharp provolone, and enough spinach to stuff a pillowcase. Order a large, which packs everything into an excellent seeded roll from Carangi’s; the small, on a kaiser roll, looks teeny-tiny by comparison. A crowd-control rope — the kind usually seen outside pretentious nightclubs — is hilariously out of context inside this low-slung building down by the docks, but it keeps the steady stream of ample-bellied regulars orderly until the grill closes at 2:30 p.m. (14 East Snyder Avenue; 215-463-1951).

6. Johnny’s Hots, Delaware Waterfront
This sandwich will put a fire in your belly. Red pepper flakes speckle the well-garlicked broccoli rabe; the provolone is so sharp it stings. These brawny flavors seem just right for this gritty corner of Fishtown, and for the loyal clientele of laborers and truck drivers. Although the meat has a processed taste, and the sandwich is skinnier than its rivals, the roll is exceedingly fresh, and the flavors merge into a very pleasing whole. But like John’s, Johnny’s closes by mid-afternoon (1234 North Delaware Avenue, at Columbia Avenue; 215-423-2280).

7. Savino’s Sandwich Shop, Woodbury
Industrial food reigns supreme on this stretch of Mantua Pike about 20 miles from Center City, which is why I raise a 32-ounce Diet Pepsi and toast new, family-owned Savino’s. The sandwich is a fatboy of thinly shaved meat cut from a fresh ham cooked on the premises, moistened with buttery gravy, served on a soft sesame seed roll from Deluxe Italian Bakery in Runnemede. Extra-sharp Italian provolone and broccoli rabe are 50 cents extra; you’ll want them. It’s a supremely fresh sandwich, with a nicely balanced ratio of greens-to-meat-to-roll, mainstream and mild, unless you add some of the hot peppers that are roasted in-house (664 Mantua Pike/Route 45, Woodbury; 856-853-9981).

8. George’s Sandwich Shop, South Philadelphia
The modestly scaled pork sandwich, on a non-seeded Sarcone’s roll, incorporates thinly sliced pork shoulder seasoned with garlic and rosemary, broccoli rabe with a hint of garlic, and the same Wisconsin-made sharp provolone that DiNic’s uses. It’s old-school and sustaining (900 South 9th Street; 215-592-8363).

9. Chickie’s Italian Deli, South Philadelphia
Very garlicky broccoli rabe is the best part of the pork sandwich at this beloved corner deli. While the meat is good-quality, the amount is skimpy, and it’s dry compared to the competition. The shredded sharp provolone didn’t melt. I’ll stick with the house specialty, the excellent veggie hoagie (1014 Federal Street; 215-462-8040).

10. Pat’s King of Steaks, South Philadelphia
The minimally seasoned pork is so finely chopped that bits fall out of the squishy Vilotti roll with every bite. The melted cheese has no flavor. The best part is the juice-soaked inner edge of the roll. Greens aren’t an option, but you can pile on the gratis hot cherry peppers (1237 East Passyunk Avenue; 215-468-1546).