Still, in a matter of weeks, Paesano's has risen as rebuttal to those who heard the gong of doom for the South Philly sit-down sandwich eatery when Shank's and Evelyn's, the storied luncheonette a block off the market on 10th Street, decamped last year to - oy! - 15th and Sansom, in the belly of the Center City beast.
The chef-owner, Peter McAndrews, loved the history of the corner: "This was a butcher shop; it's a story, not a strip mall." But he fretted he might have a rough reception: "You know, an Irish guy doing Italian sandwiches."
Any new launch should have such rough sledding. At Saturday lunch it's not unusual for all 45 seats to be filled. And the buzz has gone berserkly viral.
The crew from DiBruno Bros., the nearby cheesery, can't stay away. Guys from old-school Ralph's restaurant are in and out. Frank DeLuca from Villa di Roma picked up a bag the other day.
The northern Italian maestro, Marc Vetri, made a pilgrimage to sample the ballyhooed "Bolognese." And at Bibou, the French bistro on Eighth Street, chef Pierre Calmels and his wife, Charlotte, are unabashed groupies.
How many varieties have they tried? "All of them," said Pierre, pulling the take-out menu from behind the stove.
They are singularly awesome, big-flavor, meal-on-a-roll sandwiches. (And, yes, there are meatless options - a roast eggplant with fennel, a Sicilian chickpea pancake, and a tuna salad with green olives. Oh, and oven-roasted potatoes that are criminally addictive.)
McAndrews, who runs Modo Mio, the popular trattoria at Second and Girard, and across the street from that, his original five-seat Paesano's, says he used George's, the Ninth Street veal-and-tripe stalwart, and Shank's as models, and tried to inject "a little more oomph."
The Paesano's beef brisket (McAndrews' twist on the Philly roast beef standard) is marinated in red wine, roasted for five hours, and coarsely chopped, its flavor kicked up by the horseradish mayo and roast tomatoes.
Can they be excessive? Yep. (A fried egg as a garnish? C'mon.) Could they be improved? Sure: The soft Liscio rolls are fine, but the ones from Sarcone's up the block are better. No question they are retrograde: If the calorie count was posted on the chalkboard, you couldn't handle the truth.
But for robust flavor and from-scratch cookery (the roast pork with broccoli rabe sandwich begins with roasting a whole suckling pig; the lamb sausage - it comes with sun-dried cherry mostarda - is house-made), for originality and pure satisfaction, they are exemplars of an inventive genre that McAndrews carefully describes as "Philly style . . . with an Italian inspiration."
In the end, Shank's migration uptown didn't leave a sandwich desert after all. Tiny George's, the Ninth Street take-out window that has featured veal and tripe sandwiches since the 1930s, still plugs away. The neon-lit (if second-rate) steak shops remain a few blocks south. There's Sarcone's own hoagie place, and on Eighth Street, you've got a pick of (first-rate) Vietnamese hoagie joints.
But good-sized, indoor, sit-down spots remain few and far between. Though another ray of sandwich sunshine has emerged: Carluccio's, which recently opened in the diminutive Shank's footprint, has mounted its own menu of more traditional Italian sandwiches.
They're not merely credible. They're meticulously crafted, too - the tender chicken cutlet, moist, crisply crusted, and made to order; the mildly spicy tripe, slow-stewed, sweet and smoky with pancetta. And Carluccio's is using toasted Sarcone's rolls.
Is it too soon to say "South Philly sandwich renaissance?"
901 Christian St.
Contact columnist Rick Nichols at 215-854-2715 or email@example.com. Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/ricknichols.