Roast Pork and Water Ice, and a Compatriot To the Rescue
Saturday's News Digest V1/E18
Table of Content
Another Recuperative Stop
The Library Lending Desk
Snap Decisions Blessed are iconic alternative plans
Say, for instance, yesterday didn’t go as planned. Appointments fell through and ideas didn’t pan out or at least not in the way they were anticipated. Everything is affected—work mostly, but then life in general. Projects will be late. The home front fraught with the cat box three days overdue to be cleaned and the humans claim that they’re on the last box of Stouffer Mac and Cheese. Life is now one big wet knot of anxiety.
But that was yesterday and today you dust yourself off and drive out to find John’s Roast Pork. Actually, everyone knows John’s Roast Pork. Look it up on YouTube and all the guys (they’re all guys) call it “iconic,” a word that should be retired from the English language because it’s lost its meaning. Iconic for John’s is its representation of a Philadelphia characteristic that joins the sandwich shop with the patriotic Liberty Bell and scrappy Rocky Balboa. John’s is the embodiment of the Italian immigration to the city, many of whom settled in an enclave that came to be known as South Philly. John’s was established in 1930 when Abruzzi-born Domenico Bucci rented a triangular spit of land from the B&O railway and built a little wooden shack from which he sold porchetta sandwiches to the nearby dock and railway workers, many of whom were Italians and as new to America as he was.
Porchetta is a glorious roast pork, favored for special family meals and beloved as a late-night street food in Rome when folded into a piece of bread. If you didn’t work the docks, you knew John’s as a good place to pick up lunch after you navigated the narrow streets and tilted sidewalks of the 9th Street Market.
Understanding the back story and giving nothing to chance after yesterday’s disappointments, you drive right over to John’s corner. It’s still run by the Bucci family but the area is no longer as sketchy as it once was for anyone other than dock and railway workers. With all those “iconic” labels thrown at it, what with star turns on food shows, and having the seal of approval with a James Beard Award, the line is long, usually a good ways pass the old train tracks whose only use now is to add color to the experience of standing in John’s line. A lot of people ahead and behind you appear to have grown up with the sandwich. Other people don’t. You can tell which is which by their stance: Natives know the routine, their order always the same, and accept the long wait for it; newcomers test the patience of the woman taking their order and then stand around grousing when their sandwiches don’t appear right away.
You are not a newcomer. You know what you want—the roast pork sandwich with a side of onion rings. You stand at the side, a little way from the young couple taking selfies, bickering about their editing, and then posting on Instagram. When your number is called, you say thanks, grab a ton of napkins from the dispenser because there’s never enough in the bag. Most shady seats are filled but you squeeze into a vacant corner and dig in. There really isn’t anything to talk about with your companion because there’s the required close lean forward over the wrapping and the first bite through the soft roll. Another telltale mark of a native: neither pork or its spinach topping falls from the roll. Worldly concerns, even the time of day, dissipate while devouring the rest of the sandwich.
Comparison Shopping John's vs Tony
According to Google Map, John’s is .8 miles from Tony Luke’s. Tony sells roast pork sandwiches, too, and is equally pronounced iconic. It’s very possible to end up in a fight if you insistently broadcast your opinion about which store’s roast pork sandwich is better. But there are two very important differences between them that may or may not make the decision about which one to favor easier:
One: Tony’s sandwich is topped with broccoli rabe instead of John’s spinach. The rabe imparts a nice tart flavor and the flowerets add a satisfying crunch to the thinly sliced pork. John’s velvety spinach has a more subtle taste that melts into the pork.
Two: John’s has remained at its original corner for 92 years. Tony first opened in 1992 and has expanded into a franchise as well as the frozen food market (cheesesteaks and pork products). Tony is bigger and splasher, earning it a slew of media coverage. John’s remains idiosyncratic and has reaped quieter awards. Tony (and his father) was convicted of federal tax fraud in 2022 for paying their workers under the table for ten years. John’s keeps to the letter of the law.
Then again, there is no shame at all in driving the .8 miles down S. Swanson Street for another pork sandwich from the other place. This has been known to happen.
Another Recuperative Stop Water Ice
One needs water ice after a roast pork sandwich on a 94-degree day. It’s cold and the intense flavors cleanse the palette.
Philadelphia water ice is not a solidly frozen Italian ice. It is not the finely shaved ice of a piragua or raspado. And it is certainly not a rough textured snow cone. Philadelphia water ice is closer to a Sicilian granita which balances between frozen and a thick slush. It is yet another wonderous gift that the late-19th century influx of immigrants from southern Italy gave to the city.
One of the most revered water ice shops is John’s. (No relations to the other John’s.) It takes 7 minutes to get to it from John’s and about 11 minutes from Tony. The reason why John’s water ice is revered is because it’s one of the oldest in the city (since 1945) and situated in its original South Philadelphia location. A small water ice is plenty after a roast pork sandwich and is only $2. It comes with a spoon and a lot of napkins.
The Library Lending Desk Grateful poaching from a fine writer
As Scott Hines says in his introduction to his timely post, it is hot and our brains are fried. Then he did us all a favor by rooting around in his archive from which he gathered five great simple summer recipes that don’t require much more from you than a little chopping and stirring. I’m trying to be as generous a person as Hines is by passing them along. In all honesty, that’s quite a bit away from happening, so hitch your wagon to his newsletter, The Action Cookbook Newsletter. And enjoy his summer recipes!