Peter McAndrews’ Paesano’s goes south.
“Don’t they have a chicken cutlet sandwich?” My dad huffed as I read off the menu at Paesano’s. I tried explaining to him that Paesano’s is not that kind of sandwich shop. Oh, there’s a chicken sandwich—but it’s a breast marinated overnight in red wine vinegar, grilled and regally attired in robes of hot sopressata, herbed cheddar, oven-roasted tomatoes and broccoli rabe. Not exactly what pops was thinking.
That one’s called the Diavolo, and it’s one of 14 “Philly-style sandwiches with Italian inspiration” crafted by chef/owner Peter McAndrews. Yeah, you heard right: Mc … Andrews. The 40-year-old is as Irish as an Ed Burns movie, but if you’ve eaten at his NoLibs trattoria Modo Mio, then you know, culinarily at least, that McAndrews is far more Italian than the scores of local chefs whose surnames end in vowels. There, he and chef Jordan Sauter cook tight, often exhilarating recipes that vibrate with passion and bravado.
But this review is about the second location of Paesano’s—the original is across from Modo Mio—which opened last month and is great for an entirely different reason. Inside the old Butcher’s Café, picture windows gaze out on Christian Street and down Ninth, the cortex of the Italian Market, a district as immersed in the past as it is in the present. At its best, Paesano’s taps into this Gemini psyche of South Philly.
The ’round-the-way staff’s royal-blue tees inquire “Jaeatyet?”—that’s “Have you eaten yet, kind sir?” in Soufilly speak—and the sandwiches have names like Zawzeech (“sausage”). These comic nods to the old guard mingle nicely with new-school sandwich artistry. Sure, the signature Paeasano looks like any other roast-beef situation, but layered between sharp provolone on a roll slathered with hot horseradish aioli, you’ll find jus-soaked, seven hour-braised brisket in place of the usual top round. The chunks of aromatic, herb-rubbed pork in the Arista belong to whole suckling pigs that are roasted on-site, accounting for the shards of crispy skin, strata of lush fat and amplified deliciousness coursing through the sandwich. (The leftover pork broth is deployed for $2 orders of garlicky roasted potatoes that remind me of my grandmom’s.) The Arista is outrageous, but it’s not my favorite sandwich at Paesano’s.
That distinct honor belongs to the Gustaio—which is more wrap than sandwich—featuring house-made merguez. The Sriracha-laced lamb sausage is a minefield of citrusy coriander seed that puts its flatbread fellows in sharp relief: gently tangy Gorgonzola dolce, seriously spicy arugula, caramelized fennel, gourmet Gushers of dried cherries rehydrated in balsamic vinegar. Even the flatbread, sourced from Al Aqsa, an Islamic grocery near Modo Mio, is distinctive: chewy and soft, introducing a faint whiff of the grill into the fray.
The flatbread lends lightness to the Gustaio and to the Panelle featuring the fluffy Sicilian chickpea patties of the same name. Smeared with godzuki, a tangy sour cream-paprika-lemon juice sauce of McAndrew’s creation, the bread did disintegrate a bit in transport, and generally speaking, Paesano’s sandwiches could be packaged with a touch more TLC for those carrying out. The long sesame-seeded Liscio’s rolls—McAndrews favors their softer texture over the sesame-seeded torpedoes from Paesano’s revered neighbor, Sarcone’s—don’t hold up so great either, particularly when matched against the brothy business of the Arista and Paesano.
To avoid this, you could always dine in. There’s a waitress running the simple, cheerful room and a self-serve soda fountain spouting black cherry wishniak. The views, and the aromas emanating from the open kitchen when an order comes in for papery crespelle spread with salted Nutella and apricot jam (only $2!) are great.
There were other gaffes—overly salty minestrone, calling the marinara on the Meatloaf Parmesan red sauce—and to be sure, some will say it’s not a South Philly sandwich if it’s not on a Sarcone’s roll. But even in the case of the Bolognese sandwich’s entirely ordinary, textureless Kaiser roll, it’s obvious that what’s on the inside is what counts: a square of lasagna layered with meatballs and sausage from Modo Mio’s popular Sugo Sundays, breaded, fried, topped with a bubbling veil of smoked mozzarella and a single fried egg. Oh, yeah. Paesano’s ain’t Primo’s, but it definitely is primo. ■
Next week Adam Erace reviews Han Dynasty. For more on Philly's food scene, visit blogalicious-adam.blogspot.com.
901 Christian St. 215.922.2220. modomiorestaurant.com/paesanos_Italian_market_location
Hours: Daily, 11am-7pm.
Atmosphere: Clean, comfortable luncheonette with picture windows and an open kitchen.