As a born and bred Philadelphian, it’s not often that a cheesesteak elicits much emotion in my grease-loving heart. Like so many of us, I was raised on the sandwiches, and over the years they’ve taken on a role similar to SportsCenter on TV or the constant hum of my neighbor’s vacuum cleaner: Mere background noise, no more worthy of attention than anything else.
But my recent first bite of Santucci’s garlic bread cheesesteak snapped me out of my apathy: Why, I wondered, had I never tasted this before?
It’s such an obvious, spectacular combination. Cook up a few petals of rib-eye, fold in some sweet-soft onion, anoint it with a house-made provolone sauce, and cosset it all between the garlic confit-slicked insides of a perfectly toasted roll. Genius.
Santucci’s, which has several locations around town but just opened another recently at the corner of 10th and Christian streets, seems to embody all that has always made this neighborhood such a destination: It’s casual and family-friendly, inexpensive, and way over-delivers on the promise of its menu. Googly-eyed dates, tables of old friends and parents trying valiantly to keep their kids entertained all share the modest dining-room space with a constant stream of neighbors stopping by for some of the best take-out in the ’hood. And in the resulting tumult of this constant stream of bodies, a sense of community develops.
This is the kind of food that facilitates that so effortlessly. It’s the kind of spot where you want to roll up your sleeves and tuck into whatever is set before you with abandon.
The pizza, of course, is what owner Frank Santucci and his forebears have built their reputation on. But unlike other area pizza joints with square pies, it’s no gimmick here: Rather, the geometry of the pie—all thick-crusted and firm—allows the dough itself a chance to literally and figuratively rise above its filling, providing a wonderful snappy frame for whatever treats fill out the center.
The standard is a standout, with aged mozzarella forming the base for the oregano-flecked, well-balanced sauce on top. White pizza, with its generous hit of garlic and olive oil, is both saltier and crunchier, the crust glistening like some kind of Platonic Ideal of a pan pizza. Santucci himself has a serious hand in the dough operations here, and his passion for it is clear in every bite.
Spinach stromboli takes the opposite tack, and is built on a framework of almost wrap-thin dough rolled around generous layers of veg and provolone. It’s served with a spicy marinara, and the combination of acid and heat makes it difficult to stop picking at the massive portion.
Same with the meatballs, served either with spaghetti and “mama’s gravy” or in a sandwich with provolone, parm and marinara. Whichever delivery device you choose, make sure to get ’em. Their fluffiness works in ballet-precise opposition to their density of flavor, the wild boar, beef and veal gently perfumed with clove and juniper berries. Chef Bobby Saritsoglou is a serious talent with these and so much else here.
The meatballs, in fact, go a long way toward showcasing the real skill at work in this open kitchen. So does the porchetta sandwich, an overstuffed canoe of fork-tender braised pork shoulder, a beautifully calibrated pickled apple slaw, and a caramelized shallot jam that seems to be the sweet, unassuming key to the entire endeavor.
For such a wide-ranging menu, it’s remarkable how well-executed the food consistently is here. Hot wings, while not the biggest or meatiest around, make up for their diminutive size with a tenderness and balance that chickens twice the size rarely find. Santucci’s tomato bisque is hearty and comforting enough to make you wish for a rainy night to enjoy it on, a bright hit of acid against a warm cloak of cream. Caesar salad, though it could use a touch more brightness, is the beneficiary of a well-emulsified roasted garlic dressing also made on premises.
Like so many other favorites of this part of the city, Santucci’s embodies what I’ve always enjoyed about South Philly dining. It’s a welcome addition, and an immensely lovable spot in a neighborhood with no shortage of them.
901 S. 10th St. 215.825.5304
Cuisine: Neighborhood pizza and Italian.
Hours: Sun.-Thurs., 10am-10pm; Fri.-Sat., 11am-11pm.
Price range: $3-$16.
Atmosphere: Open and welcoming.
Food: Exactly what you’d hope for, and often, it over-delivers.
Service: Friendly and familiar.
Dinner with Luke Palladino