How the Hoagie Started: Truth, or a Lot of Baloney?
Claims about the sandwich's origins are indulgent, any way you slice it
This article was originally published in The Philadelphia Inquirer on March 5, 2003.
Augie DiCostanza's left hand is overflowing with Genoa salami, which he is about to deposit on a 10-inch roll, already prostrate on the counter in front of him, sliced open from top to bottom and covered in sharp provolone.
On the salami will be added layers of capicola and prosciutto, topped by tomatoes, onions, oregano and peppers, hot or sweet. It's called the original Italian hoagie - emphasis on original - and DiCostanza is the third generation in a family that has been making the sandwich the same way in Delaware County for nearly 80 years.
That, the clan maintains, puts it ahead of all the pretenders who say they first introduced the world to the hoagie .
There's no prize for being first, of course, just bragging rights in a part of the country that takes its hometown foods - think Tastykakes or cheesesteaks - very seriously. But it's unlikely that DiCostanza, or anyone else, will ever be able to prove his claim.
What about Al DePalma and the "hoggies" he first served in his eatery at 20th and Mifflin Streets in 1931?
"If there was a way to patent food, everything would have been OK," DiCostanza said. "But you can't, so you're fighting that battle all the time.
"But can you prove you started before 1925?" he added, referring to a photograph on the wall of the shop.
That was the year DiCostanza's grandfather Augustine and grandmother Catherine opened A. DiCostanza's grocery store at 1212 W. Third St. in Chester and served the clientele of gamblers and nighttime habitues of Palermo's bar. The store remained in Chester for 71 years before relocating in December 1996 to Boothwyn.
But notoriety hasn't spread much beyond the Delaware County border - perhaps, DiCostanza suggested, because nobody wants to think that a sandwich so connected to Philadelphia actually had its beginnings in Chester.
Or did it?
"They were probably the originators in Chester, but that's it," said Howard Robboy.
Robboy is in a position to know. He has printed two scholarly papers on the hoagie: "The Socio-Cultural Context of an Italian-American Dietary Item," and "The Submarine Sandwich in America: Lexical Variations in a Cultural Context."
He also may be the only person ever to testify in a courtroom as an expert hoagie witness. It happened around 1973, when a sandwich man in Tucson who made hoagies sued 7-Eleven after the corporation introduced a prewrapped version. Robboy testified the word hoagie was likely first mentioned in the 1930s and could not be copyrighted; the man lost.
Now 57 and a sociology professor at the College of New Jersey near Trenton, Robboy was at Temple University in the late 1960s when he turned in a term paper on hoagie origins to his professor and eventual coauthor, Edwin Eames.
"I wondered why it had so many names," he said recently. "Hoagie. Submarine. Hero. Grinder. Poor boy. I mean, grilled cheese is grilled cheese wherever you go."
Robboy traced the Italian sandwich, an early version of the hoagie, to Ninth Avenue in New York in 1885, and one to New Orleans in 1891.
"My hunch was, when Italians came over, people were thrown into factories, and the sandwich allowed them to take their culture with them to work," Robboy said. "You had your Italian roll, your meats and cheeses, all wrapped in a newspaper."
He's heard the hard-to-die story how, during World War I, Italian shipyard workers on Hog Island brought gigantic sandwiches to get them through double shifts. The sandwiches were nicknamed "hoggies," which transformed into "hoagies."
"And there's the one that says when kids played hooky from school, they'd buy the sandwiches because they didn't cost much," Robboy said. "They'd get them when they were 'on the hoke. ' That became 'hokey,' and 'hokey' became 'hoagie.' "
Could an Irishman have been behind the hoagie name? Only if you believe that a man named Hogan asked an Italian coworker on Hog Island if his wife would bring one of the big sandwiches for him. The Italian told his wife to "make one for Hogan," and the name quickly became attached to the sandwich. It's a short jump from "hogans" to "hoagies. "
Robboy gives much more credence to the Al DePalma yarn, which goes like this: In 1928 (or 1929), DePalma was walking down Broad Street with a friend when two men approached holding huge sandwiches. "You have to be a hog to eat one of those," the friend said.
A few years later, DePalma remembered the men when he opened a luncheonette. He called his Italian specialty "hoggies," and himself "King of the Hoggies. "Soon, shops all over the city were selling hoggies.
"What's interesting," said Robboy, "is if you look at the phone books through the 1930s and '40s, right after the war the word changes to 'hoagies.' Why? I think that's the way Philadelphians, with their accents and exaggerated vowels, pronounced it: 'HO-gies.' "
Another tale, related by Jim Smart, a Philadelphia historian, onetime "In Our Town" columnist for the Bulletin and student of city folklore, says residents of the Holmesburg section of the city claim the South Philly hoagie was a corruption of the Holmesburg "hobo" sandwich made on Ditman Street.
"But where the name started, or what its derivation is, I don't think anybody really knows," Smart said.
So where does DiCostanza's fit in? According to family lore, the store stayed open well past midnight, which was much appreciated by the gamblers who inhabited Palermo's bar on the same street in the roaring '20s.
"They played all hours of the night," said Augie DiCostanza, 40.
"One night a guy came over, he wanted to buy a pack of cigarettes and wanted something to eat. My grandmother asked what he wanted. He told her to pick stuff out of the case. She was roasting peppers at the time, so she threw them on." She added tomato, olive oil, oregano and salt. Soon after she asked Earo's Bakery at Third and Broomall Streets to make a special foot-long roll.
"Pretty soon the store was full of people asking for the same thing," DiCostanza said. "It just snowballed from there."
Contact staff writer Ralph Vigoda at 610-313-8109 or email@example.com.