This column was originally published in The Inquirer on June 27, 1999.
I have come to pay homage at the unadvertised shrines of true hoagie art deep in South Philly's rowhouse warren, far from the Wawas and Subways and their bubblegum bread.
These are the places to which cops on Ninth Street will send you, places that go by names such as Cosmi's (a first name, not a last one as in the famed cannoli shop), Chickie's (the nickname of one Angela), Red's at Ninth and Mifflin (justly popular for its ham and cheese hoagie), Ricci's and, on South Ritner (and now 20th and Chestnut), Primo's.
You won't see them on billboards or TV. But this is where you will find the hoagies that made the hoagie famous - manly but not overstuffed loaves of seeded Sarcone (or Carangi or airy Villotti) bread, good oil and vinegar, the imported Italian lunch meats sliced thin to order, the provolone unapologetic and sharp on the tongue.
John Cuneo, whose family has run Ricci's since the 1920s, doesn't care how many times people hear the commercials for the chains. "People know the difference," he says.
What does he think is the difference? It's the chemicals in city water, he says: "It's the lousy water that makes the good bread. ... You can't get the same texture down South, out West."
It is at Ricci's, where regular guys line up at an assembly-line counter at lunchtime, that I find what must be very close to the the original hoagie - a crunchy, juicy antipasto-stuffed Villotti roll, heavier on green olives, peppers and salad than meats.
By one account, it was a marriage of convenience in 1879 between the city's Viennese bakers who'd made boat-shape rolls to celebrate the opening of Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta H.M.S. Pinafore and savvy Italian immigrant street vendors who stuffed the bread with their antipasti.
Of course, there's no consensus on this. Just as there isn't about what makes a hoagie great. At Chickie's Deli, owner Henry George (his father was Lebanese; his mother was Angela) says it's the olive oil instead of common vegetable oil that he uses daily to prepare his roasted peppers, eggplant and greens. Indeed, his garlic-fragrant veggie hoagie oozing with cooked spinach and fried eggplant is enough to make a grown man forget lunch meat.
But of all the white-paper-wrapped hoagies I try, the one that strikes all the right notes is at tidy Cosmi's Market, founded circa 1932, where you pick your own locally baked roll from tall brown bags with their collars rolled down.
Owner Mike Seccia not only uses top-quality lunch meats DiLusso salami, Danielle prosciutto, Citterio sopressata but he bakes his own ham, too.
You can get a low-salt, low-fat hoagie here. But I've come for a genuine, unreconstructed, eat-it-on-the-stoop hoagie. So I pick a Carangi roll, craggier and denser than the light, egg-white-crusted Sarcone's. (Carangi has a higher anti-soak threshold.)
I ask for what else? the Italian, with Genoa salami and ham capicola and add my vice, a fatty-sweet slice of pistachio-cratered mortadella sausage. It comes with good, dry provolone, shredded lettuce, decent tomato, oregano and sweet onion. It fits perfectly in a one-handed grip and neatly into my open beak.
The experience, my friends, is very close to religious.