In Philadelphia, battle lines are drawn between two iconic neighboring cheesesteak vendors, Pat's and Geno's. Your loyalty to one side of the street or the other defines you. But in the Lehigh Valley, which forms a right angle north of Philly and west of New York City by about 60 miles, give or take, the question isn't Pat's or Geno's, or even "wiz wit?" (as in, Cheese Whiz with onions). It's about a sauce you won't find anywhere else and its confounding origins. I'm not talking about a sauce comprised of that processed cheese-related product. I'm talking about the default inclusion of a tangy red, tomato-based sauce in cheesesteaks everywhere you go.
My husband John and I grew up in South Jersey, about 15 miles from Philly, and he moved to the city for a spell in his 20s, pledging his allegiance to Pat's. Eventually, he moved up the river to Easton, one of the cities in the Lehigh Valley. In those days, after a gig, he and his bandmates would often hop in the car and donate their earnings to the cheesesteak god. They'd typically consume a dozen sandwiches among them. It was ritual; it was religion, eating those hot and oozy cheesesteaks.
When I moved to join him in Easton 14 years ago, one of the most puzzling food items I encountered was the cheesesteak. Initially, my reactions were aesthetic and academic, involving questions of authenticity: What would they say in Philly? Why would you sully a perfectly good sandwich? Who does the Lehigh Valley think it is, anyway? Is nothing sacred? I thought it a bit crass, something like dumping ketchup on a nicely cooked strip steak. It was a greasy culinary crime, maybe, but I was guilty of something, too. I hadn't bothered to taste this aberration because Cheesesteaks. Don't. Have. Sauce. I never quite understood it; I never ordered it on purpose.
"I took a bite, and then another, suddenly appreciating how the fresh, bright sauce cut through the heavier flavors of beef and cheese."
Flash forward. Recently, my husband picked up sandwiches for dinner from the Italian market and grill down the block, Giacomo's. When I unwrapped them, I saw that his was with sauce. "When did you start doing that?" I asked. He shrugged. I stopped what I was doing. I knew that the fifth-generation guys from Sicily running Giacomo's sell a damn fine homemade tomato sauce, among other delicacies. And they won the local paper's cheesesteak showdown in 2011. We had a model specimen in our possession. I took a bite, and then another, suddenly appreciating how the fresh, bright sauce cut through the heavier flavors of beef and cheese. It was a study in contrast, so obvious a move, I chastised myself mentally for all the years I ordered cheesesteaks with onions and mushrooms, sans sauce. Why hadn't I tried this sooner?
I started asking around about the origins of the Lehigh Valley sauce, knowing this was going to be a slippery, elusive inquisition that wouldn't likely yield definitive answers. The quest has been fraught with suppositions, conclusions based on context clues, and a few ironic curveballs.
The first place to put sauce on steak sandwiches around here was The Brass Rail, a restaurant in Allentown. Established in 1931, the Brass Rail is now in its third generation, with 46-year-old Mark Sorrentino running it alongside his wife Leigh and veteran chef Don Maurer. When the sandwich was first introduced at the Great Allentown Fair in 1937 as "Phil's Original Steak Sandwich," there was no fanfare on the first day. (Nor was there cheese; that came later.) Phil tried to rally the crowds, printing up newspaper-style headlines declaring the sandwich the hit of the fair. The sandwich became an institution. In its heyday, the Brass Rail would blow through 800 dozen rolls—about 9,600 sandwiches a day—from 10 a.m. to 2 a.m. the following morning, says Sorrentino.
Why a tomato-based sauce? "I wish I had the answer to this question. There are so many things I wish I could ask," says Sorrentino, whose grandfather and father have both passed away, the latter in 1996. He concedes it may have something to do with their Italian heritage—his grandfather came to Allentown from Italy—but adds a confounding twist. "My grandfather apparently saw someone do this in New York," he says, referring to the sauce. Yes, he said New York, the pizza mecca. Not, y'know, Philadelphia, the birthplace of the cheesesteak vis-a-vis Pat's King of Steaks, in 1930.
Around the Lehigh Valley, most people order cheesesteaks as they come, with few omissions, but amendments do happen occasionally. "One of the things that drives me crazy is when someone orders it with no sauce, and when they get it, they dump ketchup all over it," says Sorrentino, shaking his head.
"That's how you know they're not from the Lehigh Valley," says Kelly Huth, features editor of the Express-Times. Huth is one of two editors, along with Joe Owens, who spearheaded the newspaper's cheesesteak showdown. Readers sent in their recommendations and every week for 13 weeks the pair would visit a new place in search of the ultimate cheesesteak. Huth, a Valley native, knows them no other way, but wanted to know why, too. "Whenever we would ask why the sauce was on it, we were told, 'That's just how you make a Lehigh Valley cheesesteak,'" she says.
Tautology aside, there are as many variations on these sauces (and sandwiches) as there are Italian grandmothers who believe their sauce is best. Most places closely guard their recipes, but here's what we do know: "They all seem to share some element of a pizza-like tomato sauce, but with some Worcestershire in them," Huth says. "Some are sweet, but there's a bit of a tang."
At the Brass Rail, it's a cooked-down, tomato-based affair made from puree, paste, and crushed tomatoes, says Sorrentino, with neither herbs nor Worcestershire. It's requisitely tangy (must be some vinegar in there), not as thick as an A-1, and served hot on the side. Some offerings are sweeter, such as Matey's, which began turning out steak sandwiches in Hellertown in 1953 and is run by Ray Matey. His brother, Ron, and nephew Mike have been operating a separate location in nearby Fountain Hill since 1989. Mike acknowledges that he's still using the same recipe the original location was using 30 years ago: a ketchup base that's been tweaked over the years. "It's thinner than ketchup, but it's more of a jus, just a little thicker. And we have a secret ingredient, and it's something so off-the-wall, you'd never guess," he says. Both Matey's outposts integrate the sauce throughout the sandwich, but drape cheese across the top—mozzarella, provolone, and a third, undisclosed cheese—and pop them in the oven for a toasty-melty-gooey situation. Another mainstay, Joe's Steaks, which is across the river in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, has been rocking cheesesteaks with a ketchup-based sauce since 1938. The sauce is so paramount you can buy it in jars in mild or hot versions.
At Giacomo's, it's a fully integrated experience—the steak, cheese, fried onions, and sauce. Mario Famularo, the 38-year-old co-owner with his brother, Sal, 43, describes it as "something you could put on pizza, but it's not the same as my mom's sauce," he says, referring to the marinara they sell. (In 2003, the brothers took over and expanded the biz from their parents, who started it in 1975.) He doesn't guard his ingredient list: "There's nothing to hide. It's tomatoes, Italian herbs, onions," he says.
When you bite into their award-winning sandwich, the sauce, which is cooked right on the grill with the steak and onions, is neither overpowering nor superfluous. It's also not drippy or excessively saucy; it's logical and does its job. It supplies just the right bright note and melds cohesively with the other components. And the roll, delivered daily from Calandra's Bakery in Newark, holds up. "I had to use Amoroso's [from Philly] during Hurricane Sandy, because we couldn't get bread. Never again. They just fall apart," says Mario.
So, is it a pizza sauce or a steak sauce? You might say it's neither—it's some kind of regional hybrid. Some joints even go so far as to invoke the term "Sunday gravy." If you're curious, hunt down Tallarico Foods of Bethlehem, PA. The company began in 1958 as a neighborhood market complete with four butchers. These days, they sell jarred sauces in supermarkets and online. Their first, introduced more than 60 years ago in response to consumer demand, wasn't marinara. It was a "Philly style" steak sandwich sauce, made "with a proprietary blend of herbs and spices." That's all Chris Tallarico, the company's acting president, will allow.
Wait, what? The language on the jar reads 'Philly style' steak sandwich sauce—as though Philly cheesesteaks contain and are therefore known for their sauce. Misplaced modifier? The irony was not lost on Tallarico when I pointed it out.
"It's to indicate it belongs on a Philly-style steak sandwich, not a regular steak. It's a Philly steak sandwich sauce," he explains.
We may not ever know the exact origins of the sauce. One person started adding it, and the rest followed suit. Maybe it was in response to consumer demand. Maybe it was the Italian immigration. It's what people around here have known as a cheesesteak since the late 1930s. Mike Matey puts it bluntly. "The sauce just adds flavor. It's a pretty bland sandwich otherwise."
Flavor may be indeed an issue, but Tallarico believes the sauce is meant to "reintroduce moisture" to a fairly lean cut of meat. He says most places in the region use knuckle meat, which is from the shoulder area and is typically sliced thin, while frozen. It defrosts by the time it hits the grill. (It's what the Brass Rail uses, at 5.5 ounces per sandwich.) Giacomo's cheesesteak has double the meat, says Mario, and is made with freshly shaved rib eye that's neither chopped so finely on the grill that it starts to resemble ground beef, nor strung across a roll in rubber band-like strings. The sauce definitely supplies some flavor, but it's an integrated supporting player; it's never steals the spotlight.
You may now be wondering: what's the difference between a cheesesteak from the Lehigh Valley and another commonly encountered iteration, the pizza steak, spotted in sandwich shops all along the mid-Atlantic? Ah, another loaded question. In the Lehigh Valley, you more often than not encounter hot peppers (Italian influence?) and/or pickles (German influence?) on a cheesesteak. Sauce is de rigueur, but it's not called pizza steak because the sauce and toppings aren't always pizza appropriate. Would you put ketchup on pizza?
When I contacted Pat's in Philly to find out how they make their pizza steak, here's the answer I got: "I guess it would be hard to answer given that it is not by any means our preferred ordered steak sandwich, which would be the Cheesesteak or the steak sandwich, not the pizza steak." I responded to their e-mail, and asked them to clarify what was in the pizza steak (a question I had already asked), but they wouldn't engage further.
So I took a different approach. I called blindly and asked what was on their pizza steak. I was told, "pizza sauce and cheese." When I asked them to specify the cheese, I was told, "Whatever kind you like. Provolone, Cheese Whiz, American." Pizza steaks aren't really their thing. Pat's seems to officially refuse to acknowledge any other cheesesteak's authenticity—permutations like the saucy Lehigh Valley sandwich and the pizza steak are imposters. Remind me to never ask them for their official position on chicken cheesesteaks.
When I relay this whole story to Mario at Giacomo's, he laughs. He calls out to his brother, Sal, halfway across the market. "Pat's and Geno's are pissed at us because of the sauce? Whatthefuckisthat? We should be pissed at them! They're Italian and they're using Whiz!" He's half kidding, but not really.