Found: A cheesesteak in Turin

A report from the 2006 Winter Olympics.

Posted: July 14, 2009

The word Palestra on the side of a dilapidated building was good for a smile. The street called Via Filadelfia was a warming sight on a cold night.

But it was the little handmade sign on the window of Mangia e Bevi Snackbar that brought on a full attack of homesickness:

"Philly Cheese Steaks."

Now I know what you're thinking. You can't get a decent cheesesteak outside a 20-mile radius of Ninth and Passyunk. I've seen everything from hot roast beef sandwiches to hunks of sirloin on kaiser rolls passed off as Philadelphia cheesesteaks, and that's during travels in the States.

If a restaurant in Florida full of transplanted Philadelphians can't produce a legitimate cheesesteak, what chance is there in a snack bar on the Via Nizza in Turin?

Not much, I figured, but the sign seemed so improbable that I couldn't resist. Besides, the place was in the south of Turin, in roughly the same relation to the city center as the sacred Pat's and Geno's axis to Center City. Oh, and everyone was double parked.

Monday afternoon, I stepped into the tiny, glass-enclosed snack bar. There was an older man sitting inside, reading the paper. The dozen or so plastic tables outside were empty. Clearly, the Olympics weren't doing much for business here.

Turns out the man spoke virtually no English. His name, which he wrote down on my notebook, was Lele - which he pronounced "Lay-lay."

After a couple of miscues, I managed to convey to Lele that I was from Philadelphia and wanted to try one of his cheesesteaks. He seemed delighted.

"Journalist?" he said, noting my credential. When I nodded, he said, "Many journalists," and pointed toward the nearby Main Press Center.

I tried to ask whether many journalists had come to try the cheesesteak.

"NBC," said Lele.

Of course.

The sandwiches here tend to feature the bread more than what's between the slices. That's not so bad, since the bread is a lot better than most of what is put inside it. So I wasn't surprised when Lele pulled a large roll - more circular than Amoroso-style long - from an enormous bag and just one thin slice of meat.

He placed the beef on a tiny grill of the kind used to make grilled-cheese sandwiches or paninis. The bread went into a small oven with red and green peppers and fried onions on top.

I didn't even have to say "with."

Lele added two individually wrapped slices of American cheese (when part of one slice stuck to the wrapper, he ate it; I'm sure I saw this).

I looked around the tiny room. "Snack bar" here can be taken literally. Take note, LCB bluenoses: Lele offered a wide selection of beers, wine and even hard liquor. No, he didn't carry Yuengling or Yards.

Finally, the moment of truth arrived. With Lele looking on anxiously, I took a big bite. And you know what? It was pretty good. It was not an according-to-Hoyle South Philly cheesesteak, but the roll was excellent and a couple of bites came close to that perfect combo of meat, cheese, onion and grease that makes the whole thing work.

"Is good?" Lele asked, wisely handing me more napkins. I nodded and gave him a thumbs-up.

"Contento!" he said.

He turned on some music. Oddly, it was a song from Jesus Christ Superstar. In English. I worked on the sandwich. When I was done, Lele thrust a fork my way so I could get the bits of onion and pepper I dropped.

"Grazie, Lele."

"Prego, Philadelphia."

There was no way to bridge the language gap and find out how and why Lele had created his own version of the cheesesteak here. I decided it was better to leave the mystery alone.

I stepped out of the door and back into Italy.

Contento.

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