Expanding role for the Philly cheesesteak

Davio's cheesesteak spring rolls.
Davio's cheesesteak spring rolls.
Posted: April 12, 2013

YOU'VE HAD Pat's. You've had Geno's. You've had Tony Luke's and John's and Jim's and Steve's and D'Alessandro's and Donkey's and Chubby's and Cosmi's and Chick's and dozens more.

But have you had a cheesesteak pot pie? Wontons? Spring rolls? Bao buns with spicy pickled shallots, homemade sriracha and micro cilantro?

Yeah, probably.

Eighty-three years after its invention, Pat and Harry Olivieri's humble creation - originated with butcher's scraps and a hotdog roll - has gone international.

International, all over the place and controversial.

Nowadays, you can buy cheesesteak egg rolls at urban takeout joints and suburban microbreweries. Local restaurants and bars sell mini cheesesteaks speared on skewers, tucked beneath puff pastry and rolled into tissue-thin rice paper that's fried, cut into bite-size pillars and garnished with frizzled onions.

Purists might scoff at such renderings of our city's most classic dish. But Frank Olivieri Jr., grandson of Harry, great-nephew of Pat, owner-operator of the one-and-only King of Steaks, at 9th and Passyunk, thinks change can be delicious.

"Some of the variations are done exceptionally well," said Olivieri, who earned his culinary degree last year from the Restaurant School at Walnut Hill College. "The cheesesteak pot stickers at Izakaya in the Borgata are amazing."

He's also a fan of the $100 black truffle and foie gras-topped cheesesteak at Barclay Prime. As for other interpretations? "Some are really good. Some aren't," he said.

Olivieri wasn't surprised to learn that along with the cheesesteak redos, there's behind-the-scenes disagreement.

After all, where there is steak and cheese, there is cheesesteak - and where there is cheesesteak, there is controversy: Area chefs disagree about who was the first to take the local act global.

Who's the big cheese?

Of the dozen cheesesteak-tweaking restaurant folk reached for comment, six laid claim to being, if not the "king of steak," then the king of the steak egg roll. Or wonton. Or spring roll.

"There are multiple stories," said David Boyle, executive chef at Davio's since 2002. "But Davio's was the first place in Philadelphia where the cheesesteak spring roll was put on the menu at a fine-dining or quality restaurant."

(Today, Davio's roll is trademarked as "Philly Cheese Steak Spring Rolls," made for Davio's in Boston, and sold in 3,000 grocery and big-box stores nationwide.)

Joe Liberatore and Joe Drago, chefs at the Four Seasons, beg to differ. They say their former hors d'oeuvre prep cook Mui Lim made the first cheesesteak spring roll in the hotel's banquet kitchen in 1994 or 1995. "We were the first to do it," said Liberatore. "Other restaurants might dispute that."

A few blocks away at Del Frisco's Double Eagle Steakhouse, general manager Richie Furino claims that Van Lee, one of their prep cooks, was the first to come up with a similar variation, except in the form of a dumpling.

Thing is, Michael Schulson, the chef-owner of nearby Sampan and Atlantic City's Izakaya, had cheesesteak dumplings - Cantonese bao buns and those pot stickers Olivieri's so fond of - in 2009 and earlier.

Iron Hill Brewery, with nine locations in the tristate area and a 10th coming to Voorhees this summer, thinks that it came up with the first cheesesteak egg roll in 2007. But Barnaby's, the Delco mini-chain, said that they've been serving them since 1999 or 2000. Four years later, Stephen Starr's Continental Midtown opened with cheesesteak eggrolls on its menu.

Also a steak whiz

Not everyone claims to be the first to redo the masterpiece. After Marco DeCotiis, the chef at Passyunk Avenue's Noir, made his first Montreal-inspired cheesesteak pot pie - which is more like a stew with a flaky topping - he heard that Square Peg, a fancified diner at 10th and Walnut, already had its own version. DeCotiis said that he hadn't tried Square Peg's. But he wasn't going to say his came before it.

Likewise Alex Boonphaya, of Circles, a 5-year-old BYOB with locations in Northern Liberties and Point Breeze. His cheesesteak spring rolls might be among the most popular in town - they're also a bargain at three for $6 - but he's not saying his are the original overhauls.

Still, there's one thing every chef, general manager and restaurateur who serves new-format cheesesteak agreed on. They sell like hotcakes - only better.

From Sullivan's in King of Prussia to the vault at Del Frisco's, tweaked cheesesteaks are, hands down, most restaurants' best-selling apps. Iron Hill reported selling 700 orders a week across all their locations. The Philly Del Frisco's boasted serving 4,000 dumplings a week. In the same amount of time, Davio's reported sales of 300 egg roll orders, and Barnaby's said their four places averaged 4,000 individual rolls.

What would Harry and Pat Olivieri think of those numbers? Joked Frankie Olivieri, "My Uncle Pat would be standing there, wanting his cut from it."

On Twitter: @LaMcCutch

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