I pulled into the muddy lot between the train tracks and the old sandwich shack, and John Bucci Jr. was waiting.
It was after hours at John's Roast Pork in South Philadelphia, but his clean white apron was pulled taut around his waist. And as the garlicky smell of roasting picnic hams rubbed in rosemary wafted from the luncheonette to greet me, Bucci pumped his fists skyward and broke into a victory dance.
"You're back!" he said.
But the shocker here was that John Bucci Jr. was back - and glowing healthy against tall odds.
The last time we met here after hours was in 2008. He showed me how to bone out a fresh ham, and how to cook his famous cheesesteaks. Then I watched him lock the door of his family's luncheonette and walk away, unsure whether he'd ever return to make another sandwich. Bucci was headed the next day to prepare for a bone-marrow transplant to battle a dire case of pre-leukemia, and his very survival was in question.
His doctor, Thomas Klumpp, gave him a "50-50 chance for long-term success."
"It was a life-threatening situation," says Klumpp, a professor at the Temple University School of Medicine who specializes in bone-marrow transplants. Without the transplant, "we considered him uncurable."
Bucci, 47, not only survived the dangerous procedure, five years ago Thursday, but has recovered enough to return full-time to the searing heat and faithful lunch lines that wind through his open kitchen.
"It's a huge accomplishment," says Klumpp. "That's not something every patient is able to do. But if John's breathing, he's working."
Now Bucci hopes to achieve something more and raise awareness for the cause that saved his life, with a bone-marrow donor registry drive Saturday at the luncheonette, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Along with cheek-swabs and a sports memorabilia auction, Bucci hopes to raise $50,000, enough to register 50 new potential donors.
"This is the first year I feel up to it, and I want to do something. . . . I still think about the people next to me" in Jeanes Hospital, he says, his voice cracking. "Some of them didn't make it. . . . "
As his emotions swelled, Bucci grasped the spatula with a flash and whirled back to the griddle: "Grill's hot. Let's make steaks!"
Getting to this moment wasn't easy.
"My shins are on fire!" were among Bucci's first words when he awoke after the infusion, an early side-effect that continues to make his feet throb.
The luncheonette was in the good hands of Bucci's young niece, Bethany "Boo" Messick, and his longtime manager, Vince Long, and of course, his mother, Vonda. She runs the register with the no-nonsense salt of her South Philly staccato, in between holding court at the picnic tables outside.
There were some difficult days behind the counter without her uncle, Messick says, when "the oven wasn't working, the air-conditioning wasn't working, and the line was out the door." One morning the grill went up in a fireball of bacon drippings.
"A few hiccups," Messick cheerily concedes, "but we got through, and I learned so much."
For the most part, John's Roast Pork, whose sandwiches already were acclaimed by everyone from The Inquirer to the James Beard Foundation, continued its climb to fame, its rising profits spurred by TV appearances on the Travel Channel's Bizarre Foods and Adam Richman's Best Sandwich in America.
Early on, watching from the sidelines of his South Jersey home was not easy for Bucci, who was isolated in his basement for a year while he recovered his strength: "Like John Travolta in The Boy in the Plastic Bubble."
His wife, Vickie, who had married him only eight months before he learned he was sick, quit her job at a physician's office to manage Bucci's care. She wrangled his dozen or so medicines and woke up nightly at 3 a.m. to remove his IV bag from the fridge so it would be the proper temperature by early morning. She helped him through seizures and the frustration of trying to come back too soon.
She earned Vonda's admiration: "I said to John, 'If you had married the other girls you dated, you'd have been divorced two hours after you were diagnosed.' "
"It's true," says Vickie. "We ran into his previous girlfriend at an event and she told him: 'I would'a left ya. I can't deal with that. You would've been dead.' "
Bucci is now tanned, rested, and svelte, having lost 59 pounds in the last 14 months to get his working stamina back. All the family support, Klumpp says, has been essential to keeping Bucci's spirits high for recovery.
"He's doing quite well," says the doctor, who notes the statistic that "John has an 80 to 90 percent chance of living out his normal life. He's really one of those patients that you just love taking care of."
Back in the groove behind the counter, Bucci rifles through a bag of Carangi rolls, tossing many back ("too skinny, too skinny, too skinny") until he finds the right one for a Bruschetta Steak: "It's a big sandwich. It needs a wide roll."
"The Bruschetta is the only steak I created," he says proudly, turning to the grill, where a steaming mound of garlicky ribboned meat and onions is suddenly lavished with diced ripe tomato, basil, celery, and sharp provolone. Bucci meticulously tucks each ingredient in, then schwoooop!, his big spatula swipes it off the grill to lay it perfectly into the roll.
"I just love making sandwiches," he says. "And I knew I was good at it the first time I picked up a spatula as a kid."
He has mulled some big opportunities to grow the business. Longer hours. The offer of a stand at one of the stadiums. Bucci did agree to let the family friends who own Mick Daniel's Saloon a few blocks away sell its pork and meatballs. But mostly, he has said no.
"This disease has taught me a lot," Bucci says. "I'm much mellower than I was. I'm a simple guy. I don't need all that. People come here and are willing to wait as long as they get a good sandwich. And the best part? I get a compliment just about every day."
For the Cause
John's Roast Pork is holding a bone-marrow registry drive and fund-raiser auction from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday at the luncheonette, 14 E. Snyder Ave. Registrants get $5 off a sandwich, which is donated to the cause. For contributions, visit: bethematchfoundation.org/goto/JohnsPork.
See a video of John Bucci at inquirer.com/food
Vonda Bucci's Quickie Italian Wedding Soup
Makes 8 to 10 servings
For the meatballs:
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
1 teaspoon dry Italian seasoning
1 teaspoon dry parsley
¾ cup panko bread crumbs
¼ cup milk
2 pounds ground meat (mix pork, beef and veal)
For the soup:
½ cup onions, diced
½ cup chopped carrots
½ cup chopped celery
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt, to taste
1 large can College Inn chicken broth
1 8-ounce can Hunt's tomato sauce
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon dry or fresh parsley
Chicken with bone and skin (1 whole split breast, 2 thighs, 2 wings)
1 head escarole (cleaned and chopped), or 1 10-ounce package frozen spinach
1/4 cup melon seed pasta
1/2 cup Locatelli cheese (or Parmesan)
1. For the meatballs: Mix together all the ingredients except the meat, and let sit for 30 minutes. Mix in the meat and form into about 16 two-inch-wide balls using an ice cream scoop. Set aside 12 for a future meal (Vonda pan-fries hers in olive oil.) Use the remaining 4 balls for the soup, pinching off smaller bits and, with wet hands, rolling marble-sized mini-balls. There should be enough to cover a dinner plate lined with wax paper. If not using immediately, place in freezer to harden overnight, then put in a freezer bag until ready to cook.
2. For the soup: In a large pot, saute the onions, carrots, and celery in hot olive oil, and season with salt. Add can of chicken broth, then enough water to fill the can. Add can of tomato sauce, bay leaves, and parsley. Add chicken pieces, and simmer for 30 minutes. Add escarole (or spinach) and meatballs; simmer for another 30 minutes. Remove chicken pieces, shred meat, and return meat to pot.
3. Bring soup to boil and add the pasta. Blend the eggs in a bowl with Locatelli cheese and drizzle a thin stream into the boiling broth, moving the stream around the pot to avoid too much clumping. Do not stir (or broth gets cloudy). Turn off heat, cover pot, and let sit for 15 minutes. Serve.
After a long day at the luncheonette, Vonda Bucci takes comfort in knowing she always has a pot of this hearty soup waiting in the fridge. In true South Philly Italian mamma form, her recipe is actually two meals in one - a big batch of meatballs (for later), from which a quarter of the meat is pinched into mini-balls for this soup.
Per serving (based on 10): 477 calories, 61 grams protein, 12 grams carbohydrates, 3 grams sugar, 20 grams fat, 263 milligrams cholesterol, 846 milligrams sodium, 2 grams dietary fiber.
Contact Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or email@example.com.