The tender and the tough

The John's Roast Pork family pitches in as owner fights for life.

Posted: May 25, 2008

John Bucci Jr. was doing his best to make the last hours count at his family's South Philadelphia luncheonette, John's Roast Pork - preparing it for several months without him.

On Monday, he taught his 20-year-old niece, Bethany Messick (known as "Boo"), the secret recipe for the family's legendary Italian roast pork. John's has become the city's premier destination for cheesesteaks in recent years, but he reminded her: That garlicky fourth-generation pork is still its best sandwich.

On Tuesday, he deboned and seasoned 18 picnic hams - a get-ahead effort that made his shoulder throb with pain. By Wednesday, his last day, the lunch line was out the door. But Bucci was in the zone, cranking out 16 steak sandwiches from his little griddle every five minutes with an uncommon precision and grace, searing, seasoning, ribbon-shredding, and tucking each order into its crusty roll as if it were a precious work of art.

You'd never know Bucci, 42, was dangerously sick from preleukemia by watching him at this grill - and it's a cruel irony. At the apex of his success, he was about to leave the luncheonette for a bone-marrow transplant. Without it, he would soon die, his doctor said. A successful procedure would improve his odds for long-term recovery to 50 percent.

"I just want to come to work," he said, his voice cracking. "All I want to do is just make a cheesesteak."

Bucci was at Jeanes Hospital early Thursday morning, getting a catheter in his chest. A powerful chemotherapy drug called busulfan will start to flow on Tuesday in preparation for the transplant, scheduled for June 6.

Two perfect anonymous matches had been found through the National Marrow Donor Program, said Bucci's doctor, Thomas Klumpp, assistant director of the Temple Bone Marrow Transplant Program. But the multistage process, which Klumpp called among the most dangerous procedures in medicine outside of trauma surgery, was fraught with possible pitfalls.

For a patient in Bucci's condition, Klumpp said, 20 percent will not survive the transplant, 10 percent will survive the transplant but have a fatal relapse of leukemia, and 20 percent will survive but have a chronic debilitating disease. "I'd estimate about a 50-50 chance for long-term success," the doctor said.

Just a month ago, Bucci was pumping his fists and giving a teary-eyed acceptance speech after winning a cheesesteak competition run by Glen Macnow, a host at WIP-AM (610) who, after eating at 44 other places, declared John's "the greatest cheesesteak I've ever had."

And that was only the latest honor. Under Bucci's watch, this 78-year-old pork shack, a humble truck stop for most of its years, has been catapulted into the city's pantheon for destination cheesesteaks. The Inquirer chose John's as its ultimate cheesesteak in 2002, and articles in Gourmet and Esquire and a James Beard Foundation Award as an "American Classic" followed.

Yet as Bucci competed in the final WIP cook-off, his spleen was swelling with cancer. His bone-marrow cells had just acquired a second DNA mutation, Klumpp said, that showed Bucci's condition, chronic myeloproliferative disease, was rapidly heading toward acute leukemia, which could become lethal in weeks.

"I've always wanted the recognition, and now we've finally got it," Bucci said. "But I can't even enjoy it."

Griddle gymnastics

Dusk was already settling Wednesday over the triangular sliver of industrial South Philly at Snyder and Weccacoe, where John's had been closed up hours ago. Inside the solitude of his empty luncheonette, though, Bucci prepared to make just a few more sandwiches, a tutorial on the perfect cheesesteak.

"So what're we making here?" he asked eagerly in front of the grill. "Classic with onions? . . . How 'bout a steak Milano with tomato and sharp provolone? That's old-school, man, but it is one bea-ut-i-ful sandwich. It really is."

Clad in black Lycra pants, a blue shirt, and a red apron drawn tight, he had a surprising bounce in his step as he moved toward the heat with a spatula in one hand and in the other a fistful of onions. They hit the griddle in a perfect circle of white confetti. Soon, the roasty sweetness of browning onions filled the room.

Bucci carefully spread 12 ounces of marbled steer atop the onions, which protect the meat from burning. A shake of salt and pepper. A dusting of powdered garlic for the Milano. And then he let everything sit.

"You don't want to touch it too much," he said, lightly poking the folds of steak. "You don't want to kill it. I'm really gen-teel with this meat."

After two minutes, the edges began to sizzle. Then the spatula flashed. The pile of meat and onions took flight, turning high in the air and landing in a perfect flip - a move that would have had lesser cooks flinging bits everywhere. "I like to show it off," Bucci said, chuckling.

Faith in a recovery

He would have gotten flak for the showboating from his mom, Vonda Bucci, who during regular hours sits like a silver-haired bulldog at the end of the counter, bantering at her son and customers alike.

"I try to be nice, I really do, but sometimes it doesn't work," she admitted. " 'Keep moving! Order your sandwiches! Step down!' Is that hard?"

Wednesday evening, Vonda was praying at the shrine of St. Rita's at Broad and Ellsworth, completing a solemn novena, nine days of prayer dedicated to her son.

When the anti-leukemia drugs start flowing Tuesday at an intensity 10 times the standard outpatient dose, Bucci's immune system will be obliterated along with the cancer. Then, after the transplant, the anxious wait will begin for the healthy new marrow to grow back.

"He's going to be like a newborn baby again," his mother said. "He's going to have nothing. I have to have faith."

Bucci began his treatments on the annual feast of St. Rita's: a good omen, his mother said.

"What better day could there be?" the Rev. Michael DiGregorio told her. "Rita is the saint of the impossible."

For Vonda, 75, history was repeating every time someone asked her about "John."

Her husband, John Sr., died of lung cancer and a heart condition at age 60 in 1991, having worked nearly to the last day. And his father's illness had brought John Jr. back to the luncheonette full time in 1987. He was halfway through a psychology major at St. Joseph's University, but it didn't suit him as well as the griddle.

"I've never met anybody who cared about every sandwich as much as he does," said Bucci's longtime meat purveyor, Nick Papanier. "He doesn't cut any corners. He uses only the best ingredients, down to the cheese."

Why he's the big cheese

"Now this is the important part about our steaks: I'm a big cheese guy - I love cheese," Bucci said, sliding the meat off the grill's hot center to a slightly cooler zone. "I put five slices on mine, not the usual three."

The white American slices were stacked in his hand just right so he could peel them off at high speed. His hand moved as if dealing cards, and the slices landed atop the meat in a perfectly scalloped row of three. The final two he laid in a careful second row on top.

"It may seem silly, but it's important, because it gives the cheese a layered effect," he said, raising a side of the meat up and over. "Now I fold it in."

True to tradition

With all its critical success, John's Roast Pork could have made a run to expand into the kind of 24/7 production-line tourist palace the more famous places have become. But it has remained faithful to its limited hours - weekdays until 3 p.m., or until the Carangi rolls run out.

"We're a different animal," Bucci said. "I always want to stay true to the mom-and-pop idea. . . . We want a family member here at all times. And when a person walks through the luncheonette door, I like knowing who they are."

And he saw plenty of familiar faces Wednesday, along with the incredible mix of patrons that makes the picnic tables at John's one of the definitive snapshots of Philadelphia. There were sprinkler-fitters and members of the Coast Guard, college students in T-shirts, postal workers, lawyers with their silk ties tucked in, tourists from Chicago.

The quarterback from the football team Bucci played on at St. John Neumann High School (Southern Division champs, 1983) came in on Bucci's last day behind the grill. Another regular, Joe Evans, a Delaware trucker who has been stopping for 25 years, even coaxed some gallows humor from Bucci with his roast beef sandwich.

"Hey, the doctor said this would be a pretty good gig if it wasn't for the leukemia!" Bucci cracked, somehow sending the entire luncheonette into a fit of laughter.

Without his buoyant personality and sure-handed spatula behind the grill, some worry if the luncheonette will remain on an even keel in Bucci's absence, which could last about a year if all goes well.

"I am concerned," said Papanier, the meat distributor, who plans to check in often. "They're going to have a little bit of a tough time because he's not going to be there to take care of all the little details."

But John's Roast Pork has begun preparing. The parsimonious Vonda, often teased for rationing napkins and foil wrap, invested big in a $60,000 walk-in refrigerator, and upgraded the meat slicer. Stalwart manager Vince Long has taken over the grill.

And relatives have all stepped up. Bucci's wife, Vickie, has gone full time, helping with the register from 5:45 a.m. His older sister, Carol Messick, whose father never allowed her to work there ("he thought it was a little too rough"), has taken Fridays off from her government job to make the hoagies and fries. Her husband, George, comes Fridays, too, to wrap sandwiches and keep things light: "I'm Mr. Big Mouth," he said.

The Messicks' daughters are also involved. Erika, 25, comes in for short working stay-overs ("to keep the peace") from her home in Massachusetts. Her sister, Bethany, though, has just transferred back from college in Maryland to be closer. She's working at John's full time all summer. She has already earned the nickname "Little Mum-Mum" for being what her sister called a Vonda-like "natural enforcer."

Bucci could hear his father's words channeling through him as he stood beside Bethany and taught her the rituals of the roast pork.

"And then she said to me, 'I want you to tell Mum-Mum that I know how to bone and season the porks,' " Bucci recalled. She told him, "I can do this. I don't want you to worry about this place."

"You know," said Bucci, "I see a lot of myself in her."

All done - for now

The sandwiches were nearly done. Six crusty, sesame-speckled rolls sat on the counter, their insides gouged out to make room for the hefty meat.

They appeared to be essentially identical, but Bucci swiftly judged their contours and set each one aside for a specific filling: skinny for the simple steak and onions, dark-crusted for the juicy pork, squat and wide for the Milano with sliced tomatoes.

"It's so much more than picking up any old roll," he said. "You got to pick up the right roll! Think! Think!"

He scooped the Milano from the grill in a single stroke and placed it gently in its roll.

A perfect fit.

"Now that is a bea-ut-i-ful sandwich. It really is," he said.

The hot smell of onions and seared meat still hung in the air as he pulled the luncheonette door closed behind him.

"I'm going to miss this intensely," he said, lingering as he locked the door. "I can't wait to make my next cheesesteak."


Contact restaurant critic Craig LaBan at 215-854-2682 or claban@phillynews.com.

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