Philadelphia’s best sandwich shop reopens

The scene: For more than a decade, Chef Peter McAndrews ran a portfolio of beloved local Philadelphia restaurants. But in recent years, he has been closing them, simplifying his life and workload. Fortunately, the Girard Street location of his popular gourmet sandwich shop Paesano’s remains – though it did move one storefront over to a corner location. In 2009, Philadelphia Magazine named Paesano’s  – no one uses the “Philly Style” – the city’s best sandwich shop, and in a city passionate about everything between the bread, it arguably retains the title today.

The eatery, which reopens Friday in Philly’s Fishtown neighborhood, doesn’t look special, other than the prominent chalk menu board and a notable focus on porcine decorations, including the signature Romulus and Remus art. You order at the counter, which stands in front of an open deli-style kitchen, and the place is casual and simple with lots of pictures of local Philadelphia VIPs on the walls and a cooler from which you can grab soft drinks. The entire focus here is on the food, and that’s a good thing.

Reason to visit: Every sandwich and the potatoes arrosto

The food: “There are many Philly cheesesteak spots in the city, but this isn’t one of them,” a foodie friend here told me when she recommended it. “It’s a sandwich shop run by someone who happens to be a very talented and successful chef.”

The Knuckle is Paesano’s gourmet take on the classic Philly Cheesesteak, with flavorful sliced beef knuckle meat, onions and cheese.

They do, in fact, have a take on the city’s iconic Philly cheesesteak sandwich known as the “Knuckle” (but called the Paesano’s Cheesesteak on their online menu) But it’s much better than the more famous versions, made with juicy, flavorful thinly sliced beef knuckle meat – which you don’t see every day – and real cheese.

This is the formula here, and while it is a simple one,  it is the strategy Great American Bites has observed to be the most successful at places all across the country that care about food: take the best quality ingredients, treat them right, and combine them in creative ways. That pretty much always works, and it works very well at Paesano’s.

This starts with the rolls, and as Philadelphia is a name brand bakery town, the fact that they are seeded rolls from Liscio’s Bakery would impress if you knew that was the city’s crème de la crème.

A cross-section view of the fried chicken livers of the “Liveracce."

Just about every sandwich here features a clever combination of really bold flavors and runs spicy. There is no better example than the “Liveracce” (a pun on the name of the flamboyant musician) which pairs crispy fried chicken livers with spicy salami, gorgonzola cheese and a spicy orange glaze.

Fried chicken liver sandwiches are rare, period, but here the incredibly rich liver, fried to crunchy perfection that still snaps within the bread like a great New Orleans fried shrimp po’ boy, goes shockingly well with the salami, while the strong gorgonzola cheese stands up to the powerful meats. It’s almost too rich to finish, and the portions here are all generous, but if you like liver, you will love this.

A peek inside the Diavlo sandwich, which features spicy seasoned grilled chicken breast with salami, tomatoes, cheddar herb spread and broccoli rabe.

A more mainstream but no less delicious combination is the Diavlo: spicy, seasoned grilled chicken breast (usually bland, but not here) with salami, tomatoes, cheddar herb spread and broccoli rabe. The latter is the secret green that makes the city’s other iconic sandwich, the Italian roast pork (covered here before in detail) so special, and it works great with the odd poultry-and-salami combo.

You’ll also find it on their upgraded take on the Italian, the Arista, which uses slow-roasted suckling pig rather than the standard, oven-roasted shoulder, and makes even the city’s best pale in comparison. In the spirit of inspired combinations and the general spicy theme here, it also gets long hot peppers.

The one exception to the wonderful Liscio’s rolls is the Gustaio: artisanal lamb sausage, tomatoes, spicy – of course – pepperoncini, fennel, arugula and cherry mostarda on a pita. It’s a sort of flavor-bomb take on the gyro.

If you want a staid sandwich, do not come to Paesano’s where the signature is explosive flavor in every bite. If you want basic fries, do not come to Paesano’s.  Well, yes, they actually have those, but instead, get the decadent potatoes arrosto: chunks of potato fried in pork fat and heaped with melted provoloneand shredded suckling pig. It’s crazy good.

Pilgrimage-worthy? Yes – the best upgraded takes on Philly classics – and other sandwiches.

Rating: OMG!  (Scale: Blah, OK, Mmmm, Yum!, OMG!)

Price: $-$$ ($ cheap, $$ moderate, $$$ expensive)

Details: 1429 Marlborough St., Philadelphia; 267-886-9556

First trip to Philadelphia?  5 things to do that aren’t the Liberty Bell

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