On the Side | The steak kings take a bow

Posted: April 19, 2007

At the Bridge Cinema, 40th and Walnut, the royalty of cheesesteakery was on hand Saturday morning for what was billed as "the exclusive world film premiere" of This Is My Cheesesteak, hot from the editing monitor in Ben Daniels' dorm room at Syracuse University.

There were the requisite gold chains, and in the case of Geno's owner Joey Vento, a profusion of tattoos and Confederate flag iconography. Shaved heads were amply represented, as were dress T-shirts denoting self-proclaimed rank; king (Pat's) and prince (Steve's).

The film was Daniels' senior project, but some day he'd like to see it in a real festival, like the indie films showing at the Bridge later that day as part of the Philadelphia Film Festival.

Daniels, 22, grew up (and still lives) at 45th and Larchwood in West Philadelphia. And besides the creme de la cheesesteak world - the owners of the six most-famous eateries - he'd invited his entire block, his teachers, his friends from Lower Merion and Friends Central, noted olfactory expert Marcie Pelchat, and even the girl who cut his hair for a 20-minute interview with Stephen Starr about the $100 cheesesteak (with kobe steak and truffle butter) at Barclay Prime, the Rittenhouse Square steak house. ("It's a marketing tool," Starr said, and sure enough the Pavlovian media ate it up: It got international press.)

There is a "Super Size Me" quality to the film, though through Daniels' lens, there's nothing sinister about the sizzle on the grill, or the antics of the indie steak-makers: Fat is good.

As they milled about in the lobby of the Bridge, the steak-shop stars of the show (most of them second-generation), could be heard commiserating about Shore-house hassles and about the challenges of the business.

Tony Luke Jr. worried about the security of the autographed celebrity photos that hang on the tiled walls outside his shop on Oregon Avenue: "I'm not open 24 hours a day."

John Bucci Jr., who operates John's Roast Pork with his mother, Vonda, fretted over the fragility of a take-out sandwich. To get the real experience, he said, "You gotta eat it right there."

The perils of franchising occupied Steve Iliescu, who founded Steve's Prince of Steaks (which now has other locations) at Bustleton and St. Vincent. "You're gonna get 85 percent of the taste in it [at a franchise], if you're lucky," Tony Luke Jr. told him, "never 100 percent; never as good as you make it."

"I don't even think that every one that I make is the same," said Iliescu.

So it went until (after Ben's photographer father, Ted, shot a group photo) the lights went down, and there was Pat's owner Frankie Olivieri showing where the original Olivieri hot-dog stand - the manger the steak was born in - once stood, and Joey "You Can't Beat Me!" Vento revving his motorcycle, and Abner Silver, co-owner of Jim's Steaks, taking a stab at flipping steaks for the camera.

It's the rose-tinted world of a steak-struck kid; Vento's poetic egomania more palatable absent any mention of his "English-only" sign, another stunt that got international attention.

There's a playful look at photos of the older Olivieris clowning with the likes of Humphrey Bogart, more lighthearted, certainly, absent any mention of the testy family feud over the Pat's trademark.

In one of the more affecting scenes, in fact, Daniels joins the Bucci clan as they make a baked ziti family supper and sample just-fried meatballs on a fork.

"I didn't realize we were so Italian!" exclaimed Vonda Bucci's daughter, Carol Messick, a health-care manager, when the lights went up: "That looked like a scene out of The Godfather."


Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or rnichols@phillynews.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols

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