Has a Philadelphia classic been redefined?

Before the 1980s, old-timers and bakers agree, if you ordered an Italian hoagie - South Philly, South Jersey, the 'burbs, anywhere - you got a plain roll. No sesame seeds.

But earlier this month, those toasty, tasty seeds coated the top six sandwiches at the finale of the Italian Hoagie Hunt hosted by WIP (610 AM).

What planted the seed of change?

A sandwich shift

Louis Sarcone Jr., fourth in the line of Sarcones to run the bakery, remembers where and when the seed revolution germinated - a place called JR's, near 21st and Passayunk.

"They were the first ones to use our [seeded] rolls," he said. "That had to be in the late '80s."

That was an "oh, my God!" sandwich, he said, so other places started ordering the seeded Sarcone's. "They started imitating us in the mid to late '90s."

Sarcone's began making its own hoagies, too, when it opened its deli at Ninth and Fitzwater in 1997. The deli's hoagie finished third with the 'IP judges.

Chickie's Italian Deli, near 10th and Federal, began using seeded rolls - from Sarcone's - when it opened in 1993. Why?

" 'Cause it tastes better. It does. It just gives it a nice crunch to the roll," said Jean Rizzo George, who owns the place with husband Henry. .

But Giuseppe Pallante, 45, whose Richboro shop finished No. 6, said the seeds weren't the only change to the city's hoagies.

Once you'd find a lot of cooked salami and "ham cappy" - a cheaper, domestic cappicolla, said Pallante, who arrived from Italy in 1975. Now, consumers want "really authentic Italian meats" - imported prosciutto, cappiciole and sopressatta.

"With the Food Network, I guess they became educated," said Pallante, who uses Abruzzi rolls.

Seeds by the ton

Each week, Liscio's Bakery of Gloucester County orders about 2,500 pounds of sesame seeds - yes, more than a ton - to put on rolls, said co-owner Chad Vilotti.

A lot wind up at the fifty locations of Primo's Hoagies - winner of the finale's Listeners Choice award.

Some go to Paesano's, the little Northern Liberties shop that the Hoagie Hunt judges named No. 1.

"I wouldn't do anything without seeds," said Anthony Messina, co-owner of Hoagie Hunt's No. 4 Pastaficio, near 15th and Packer.

The meatball sandwich. The chicken cutlet. The roast pork. The roast beef. "All on seeded rolls," he said. Also by Abruzzi.

The No. 2 hoagie, by the way, was made by Carlino's Market of Ardmore and West Chester, which bakes its own bread.

Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan says seeds bring more than flavor to the perfect sandwich - it's about texture, too.

"Seedless, squishy rolls are for amateurs," he said. "For me, seedless is soulless."

Between seeds and meat

And the bread is where the answer may lie.

In fact, Liscio's uses a heavier bread for its seeded rolls, co-owner Chad Vilotti said.

The density difference is so significant, he prefers to use the word bread for the seeded "loaves," and the word roll for the unseeded types.

"It's not the seeds, it's the bread," agreed Louis Sarcone Jr.

"The brick oven is 80 percent the reason, the rest is just the process we do with our recipe," he said. "We let our doughs sit at least two hours before we even touch them."

Pallante agrees the secret is "a good roll," not the seeds, although they do add taste and texture.

"On a cheesesteak I prefer a plain roll," he said.

Contact staff writer Peter Mucha at 215-854-4342 or pmucha@phillynews.com.