In a corner of a little sandwich shop whose name I can’t remember, there is a typewritten letter on the wall less easily forgotten, an old timer recalling his childhood as the grandson of Italian immigrants. I went in there for a roast pork sandwich ten years ago and came back ten years later to find everything as I left it. It is a fine thing when one’s memory is vindicated and I got to thinking about the Italians.
“There was a definite distinction drawn between US and THEM,” it began, describing a world of backyard gardens, homemade wine, and huge, multigenerational family gatherings common in South Philadelphia in the early twentieth century. It was an image of a time and place so foreign to my own experience, as a boy growing up in the suburbs a few miles east, that it remained in the back of my mind all of that time. Reading it again sparked a contagious nostalgia that quickly gave way to my own.
It was the early 90s and Mayor Rendell had made good on his promise to clean up Center City, making it suitable for the suburban crowd to drive in on the weekends, leave the car with a valet, and come back from dinner a short while later. We were taken there for a few hours at a time, for shopping, for dinner, on school field trips, shepherded to its historic points of interest. On the fringes of this map were the places that came to us second-hand, described in hushed tones to lend the appropriate foreboding. Stories of petty crime, car radio smash and grabs, and low-rent muggings passed through the grapevine. We heard on the news about the slums of Camden and Germantown, the nightly shootings in West Philadelphia, sorority girls from UPenn getting hit in the ass with stray bullets.
South of downtown, a highly-publicized mafia feud unfolded in the old Italian neighborhood. New Jack City and Goodfellas had just come out, bringing organized crime back into vogue. Released from prison in 1992 around the same time the films hit VHS, young mafioso Joey Merlino was a product of these reels, strutting with his associates past local television cameras in ribbed mock turtlenecks and khaki pants, spliced in between cinematic murders, neighborhood charity events, and at the height of it all, a blockbuster shootout on the Schuylkill expressway in morning rush hour.
We were listening intently on the other side of the Delaware, in a suburb so tranquil that the nightly stories of crime and violence cruelly entertained us. Our neighborhoods were lassoed in by highways, forming green figure eights from an aerial view, intentionally cut off from the world surrounding. Long summer afternoons passed at the pool. We were too old to make believe, too young for girls, and too clever to take swimming laps all that seriously. We played cards half-heartedly and made up stories about going to the big city.
An Italian friend whose father had grown up in South Philadelphia took precedence in these conversations, regaling us in the cultural norms of this distant and exotic world. His stories exhibited a certain coolness, as if they might actually be true. They weren’t the shootouts of the nightly news, but stories of hanging out, watching the Phillies game, eating a sandwich. There was a new sandwich for every story: roast pork, prosciutto, and the cheesesteak, the local specialty which circulated in legend. He promised us that one day we’d see for ourselves, and that day finally arrived one lazy late August afternoon when his father took us all to a baseball game.
We crossed the Betsy Ross bridge into the city and I can remember Frankie Valli’s version of “Don’t Think Twice” came on the radio, Bob Dylan’s wistful lyrics in shrill falsetto, a surreal overture to our journey into the unknown. We took a different exit from the bridge, passing through a rougher, industrial side of the city, of acid rain-washed factories, rusted exhaust pipes exhaling plumes of white smoke. It felt like we were being set up, taken to an undisclosed location, to be robbed, to be killed, to be sold to the mafia. I rolled down the windows to the smell of city air, coolly fantasizing about the danger of every moment.
The Philadelphia Philles of that era were a lineup of mullet-headed sluggers, as cool as they were laughable, chest bumping dickheads and righteous bruisers with tattoos who racked up RBIs and DUIs indiscriminately. Next to the excitement of the trip, the events of the game are a blur. Lenny Dykstra stole home on a wild pitch, colliding with the catcher and knocking him into the dirt. The umpire called him out, clearing the benches and punches and kicks flew below the belt. Down a run in the ninth, Darren Dalton swung for the fences with one out and the bases loaded, grounding into a double play to end the game. It was something along those lines, a heroic loss, in the style of Philadelphia.
Hours of hot sun and roasted peanuts had stimulated the appetite, and we piled into the car to get something to eat. There was a discussion in the front seat as to where to go, some argument between Pat’s and John’s. Who were they? I thought to myself from the back seat. Maybe he was introducing us to his friends.
The narrow brick row homes of South Philadelphia were like nothing we had ever seen, heavy vinyl awnings covering half of each window like the eyebrows of the old men hobbling by. We made the block in search of a place to park, passing the emptied food stalls of the Italian Market, the visual poetry of the metropolis in glowing neon: Esposito’s, Fiorella’s, Giordano’s, advertising meat and fish, fresh vegetables. I began to realize it wasn’t the social call I had imagined. Every storefront was named after somebody, predictably taken from the New Testament and the patron saints of southern Italy. There is the joke that Italians only have a few names for their sons. Anthony, Joseph, Michael, Paul, or John, and these names were everywhere, on street signs and store fronts, memorials to the patriarchs.
Pat’s namesake was a modest wooden building papered with black and white photographs of Italian crooners and local celebrities, the smell of grilled onions thick in the air. We stood on our toes to get a glimpse, like seeing a naked woman for the first time. It was pure vulgarity, piles of chipped beef being shifted from one side to the other by men who seemed to relish in hacking at it, flipping it into an open roll. We took them across the street to the bleachers of a public park looking out onto a baseball diamond with an electric scoreboard, enraptured by this sandwich that seemed to have been designed for and by children, grilled meat slathered in orange cheese-substitute, asking him a thousand questions between bites.
“Is it true there are sandwiches made out of ostrich?” we asked him.
He nodded his head. We asked away, more nods.
“Did you used to play baseball here?” we asked him.
“No. We used to play in the street,” he said.
He grew quiet, gazing at the electric scoreboard above the bleachers and turned to us.
“You know what Joe DiMaggio said was the worst thing to happen to baseball?” he asked us.
A look of confusion.
We stared at each other blankly. He was our little league team’s biggest fan, screaming at us from the stands to win one for the Gipper. I had no clue the depth of what he had said that day, with cheez whiz dripping from the corner of his mouth, but it stayed with me, being enigmatic, a latent mystery like the place itself.
Crossing the bridge I turned on the radio in search of some anthem to play me in and stopped when I heard “Al Di La,” a ballad sung by Connie Francis in Italian and English, as the scenery passed in slow motion. Al di la means you are far above me, very far. Every star will light the way above me, to where you are. It was a warm late afternoon and I spent most of the drive thinking back to the time when Philly seemed like such a limitless place. I was older and better understood its boundaries.
Without thinking I ended up at Pat’s, ordering the same steak sandwich I had eaten those years ago. Taking the first bite I experienced that tragic failure of memory that often happens when indulging in childhood nostalgia, a truly repugnant sandwich that probably always was. I was old enough now to realize the tragedy of processed, oil-based cheese, of cheese which could not legally call itself cheese. Eating a cheesesteak this way had become the cost of entry into the fraternal city, like some sadistic hazing ritual. Where did it all begin? The restaurant has a long history dating back to 1930; Cheez Whiz was invented in the early ’50s. The transition from the thirties to the present day had been dramatic and I doubted if the eponymous Pat would recognize the sandwich.
The taste had disappointed, but it stirred in me a rush of memories of that day, now almost two decades ago. Little League, I thought to myself, finally understanding the meaning of those words. Of course Little League had ruined baseball; how far it had come from the spontaneous game in the street, or in the backyard, that we all had played as kids. Little League as an organization had granted the sport legitimacy, but sacrificed the authenticity of the original idea. We played not for ourselves, but for the crowd of parents who put us up to it. The cheesesteak wasn’t for “us,” it was for “them.”
In its original form, the cheesesteak was already a compromise, an American sandwich made with an Italian sensibility, provolone cheese, grilled onions, and a crusty roll, replacing the traditional roast pork as the symbol of Philadelphia’s Italians. It told the story of their changing world, their gradual embrace of the things they had once set themselves above: fast food, the supermarket, and the American idea of cheese. The long line of tourists proved the Italians had reached the mainstream, a victory, like their move to the suburbs, that seems bittersweet, if only for what was left behind.
That old Philadelphia still exists for those who seek it out. The Italian market is still open six days a week, selling produce, fish, and meat to passersby on the sidewalks. The signs at Giordano’s, Anastasi’s, and Esposito’s have kept their neon glow. DiBruno’s, having reached the ultimate in American legitimacy with their flagship store in Center City, maintains a small outlet in the old neighborhood, packed floor to ceiling with imported Italian delicacies. Beneath the surface, though, one can sense the change, for every bona fide old timer buying thinly sliced veal there are a handful of bright-eyed tourists from out of town. Gone are the backyard fig trees, the gardens of grape vines and tomatoes, replaced by murals and bronze placards, statues and memorials. The nostalgia for this commemorated age has taken away any sense of the present moment, leaving the imagination to wander through the relics of the past.
Thinking of this moment in history I had surrendered my hope of anything else, chalking it all up to a generational shift, that the world of the old timer’s memory had been erased by the suburbs, by Little League, by the desire to fit in, by time itself. As I walked back to my car, the sound of Mariachi offered something unexpected, and I noticed that 9th Street, the old center of Italian Philadelphia, was dotted on either side by Mexican tiendas, bakeries, and restaurants.
Hoy Rica Barbacoa Estilo Hidalgo read the sign in the window: delicious barbecue today, in the style of Hidalgo. I stepped inside, navigating the crowded tables, to find everyone enjoying long-simmered goat, a specialty served every Sunday after Mass, on warm tortillas with lime, cilantro, and raw onion, alongside the rich broth they call consomé. I ordered the complete set with three tacos but had to settle for two: only a few goats are prepared and it always sells out. I had arrived just in time.
Looking around at the tables covered with plates of meat, tortillas, bowls of broth, I was reminded of the Italian tradition of Sunday gravy, a long meandering lunch after the pre-communion fast. Their green, white, and red flags, their religious convictions, speaking similar languages evolved from Latin, made me consider if there were any sort of cosmic significance that they should be drawn to the same city streets.
I noticed that many of these little restaurants have the cheesesteak on the menu, a sign that the compromise is already taking place, finding a balance between the food for us and the food for them. As that line becomes hazy in the coming generations, I wondered what the fate of barbacoa would be, whether assimilation in the style of Little League is the inevitable future of the game that starts in the streets.