The Tacony Hoagie Trail is the starting point of the Torresdale Avenue business district's revitalization, said Balloon, who manages the commercial corridor for the Tacony Community Development Corporation.
"We're where Baltimore Avenue and East Passyunk were 10 years ago," he said. "And look what's happened to them."
This spring, Balloon said, 20 stores along Torresdale Avenue, from Robbins Street to Wellington, will get facade facelifts, giving the corridor a much-needed makeover, largely funded by city storefront-improvement grants.
Balloon and his fellow conspirator, Mike "Scoats" Scotese - a Tacony guy who wants to bring the success of his Grey Lodge Pub ( Esquire named it one of "America's Best Bars"), in Mayfair, to his native neighborhood - saw 25,000 people jam Chinatown for its food-driven Night Market and knew that hoagies could help revitalize recession-ravaged Torresdale Avenue businesses.
"That is a cool idea!" exclaimed Alan Greenberger, director of the city's Commerce Department and deputy mayor for economic development, after the Daily News told him about the new Tacony Hoagie Trail.
"I haven't heard of a business corridor revitalizing itself with everyday stuff like pizza, cheesesteaks and hoagies, but I think this could work. I'm now looking forward to going to Torresdale Avenue. Where did you say these places are?"
They are here:
* DeNofa's Italian Deli (6944 Torresdale Ave.): Chef/owner Angie DeNofa had the hoagie-hardened Daily News Provolone Posse literally eating out of the palm of her hand as soon as she pulled two pork roasts out of the oven, sliced off a few tender morsels and said, "Here! Taste!" She had us at "Here!"
Other DeNofa's "OMG!" hits include her homemade Italian sausages, meatballs and sauces, her imported prosciutto/capicola/sharp provolone Italian hoagie, and 28 one-foot-in-Hoagie-Heaven specials named after staffers and customers from Angie to Shannon.
DeNofa's is like all of South Philly's Italian Market in one Tacony store, which has been a neighborhood secret for 36 years. Consumer warning: Beware Angie's stuffed roasted peppers. You can't eat just one.
DeNofa's secret? "Whenever I remember one of my mother's recipes, I try it," DeNofa said. "Keep it simple. Keep it fresh. People love her recipes."
* Fink's Hoagies (4633 Princeton Ave., at Torresdale): While Angie DeNofa is quiet and self-effacing, Dennis Fink wears a crown when he arrives at his shop every morning and unabashedly calls himself "The King of Gourmet Hoagies."
Health regulations require him to ditch the crown when he enters his kitchen to build hoagies that have become so popular in the eight years since he ascended the throne, he's got four delivery trucks carrying them to luncheons, parties and homes all over the Northeast.
Fink's has won PHL 17's Philly Hot List "Best Sandwich Shop" award for the past three years.
While his competitors worship at the shrine of Sarcone's Bakery rolls from South Philly, Fink has gone maverick and gone to Jersey for Liscio's Bakery's seeded French loaves.
Fink's has got to be the only hoagie shop in Philly with a captured Soviet SKS semiautomatic rifle on the wall complete with Vietnam War souvenir certification.
Fink joined the Marines at 19 and saw combat in Vietnam. "We were sweeping a rural hamlet," he said. "We got resistance. Naturally, we won. I got the rifle. My colonel said, 'It's yours. You earned it.' "
Because of Marine regulations at the time, Fink said, military police confiscated the rifle when he landed in Okinawa on the journey home. "Took me 38 years to get it back," he said. "But I did."
After a varied career that included the presidency of the Philadelphia Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, which privately raised $1.5 million for the memorial at Front and Spruce streets, Fink said he started his shop eight years ago with "one can of tuna fish, no customers" and his wife's help.
"But I run things with Marine discipline, and when I started telling my wife, who is a nurse, 'Do this! Do that!' she said, 'Don't boss me around.' I said, 'I'm the king!' She said, 'Then I'm the queen.' I had to fire her. There's only room for one king in the kingdom."
"I heard that," one of Fink's longtime staffers said, laughing. "I'm telling Patty." The king looked a little worried.
Besides his signature Original Italian, Fink names his hoagies after Northeast neighborhoods, including his personal favorite, the Tacony (roast beef, fresh asparagus sauteed in balsamic vinegar, sharp provolone), and Balloon's personal favorite, the Torresdale (roast pork, fresh spinach leaves, sharp provolone, roasted garlic).
"All day long, people come in and break my stones over why I haven't named a hoagie after their neighborhood in Bucks County or South Jersey," Fink said. "So far, I've done this side of the Boulevard. The other side is next."
* Jack's Place (Hegerman & Wellington streets): Effusively reviewed on yelp.com and phillyphoodie.com, Jack's Place is the most mysterious of the Tacony Hoagie Trail prosciutto palaces, because the elusive Jack McGinley, who's been building hoagies for 18 years, is rarely seen and even more rarely heard.
He talked with the Daily News just long enough to tell us that he'd let his food do the talking for him.
Scotese said that before Jack put up a permanent sign, he relied for years on a sidewalk sandwich board. "If the board was inside," Scotese said, "you'd never know the place was there."
Scotese recommends one of Jack's three "insanely great" Italian hoagies - succulent symphonies of soppressata, Genoa salami, corteghino, capicola, sharp provolone - because, he said, "the olive spread on Jack's Italian hoagies? Man! It's like the muffuletta at Central Grocery, in New Orleans. I mean, man!"