After two-plus weeks on a light diet I was extremely excited about eating something I could blog about Thursday. While I still wasn’t quite ready to dive into a cheesesteak, there is another sandwich with a large following in the Philly area on which I’ve been wanting to write, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Although they aren’t as ubiquitous in the region as cheesesteaks, many Philadelphians prefer Italian-style roast pork sandwiches – a.k.a. Roast Pork Italiano. The classic Philly roast pork sandwich is comprised of thinly-sliced roasted pork loin with sharp provolone cheese and either broccoli rabe or spinach on a long roll. A few places give you a choice of greens, but most offer one or the other. There are also roast pork sandwiches to be found that feature pulled pork meat from the shoulder rather than the loin.
My short hiatus gave me time to think through a rough blogging plan for the year and it includes trying as many of the highly rated roast pork sandwiches in the area as I can get to before putting out a list of my favorites, just as I did with cheesesteaks last year.
The two best-known roast pork sandwiches in the area are served by John’s Roast Pork in South Philly, which also serves my third-ranked cheesesteak, and DiNic’s at the Reading Terminal Market. I wrote about the latter’s wonderful meatball sandwich a few months ago, but they are much better known for their roast pork. I’ll eventually get around to trying the pork at both of these places.
But there are also a good number of Italian delis in the area that serve roast pork. Many of these shops don’t sell cheesesteaks, but do have a wide array of hoagies, as well as meatball, chicken cutlet, roast beef and roast pork sandwiches. South Philadelphia is unquestionably the epicenter of these delicatessens and the Roast Pork Italiano. To start my survey of the sandwich, I visited a quintessential South Philly deli; Lil’ Nick’s at the awkwardly configured intersection of Shunk Street and Moyamensing Avenue.
Lil’ Nick’s is next door to Big Nick’s, which is owned by his father. The son sells sandwiches, while the father’s shop has Italian cold cuts and other specialty products.
The sandwich shop is takeout only and doesn’t have much open space inside. While waiting for my order, I spotted a couple Aversa bread boxes on top of their well-stocked soda fridge. Aversa’s seeded rolls are very good and are also used at my local standby, Johnny Paisano’s.
Lil’ Nick’s menu includes most of the South Philly deli standards; a wide variety of Italian and other hoagies, chicken cutlets and a few other hot sandwiches, including the Roast Pork Italiano. They also had specials posted on a small chalkboard.
Lil’ Nick’s Roast Pork Italiano comes on the previously-mentioned Aversa seeded rolls and features very thinly sliced house-roasted pork loin with broccoli rabe and sharp provolone. It only took a few minutes for my sandwich to be prepared after I placed the order and I was on my way down the block to eat half in my car before taking the rest home to finish off.
All of the ingredients in this sandwich were beautifully balanced. While the sharp provolone certainly packed a stronger punch than its mild cousin, it was on there sparingly enough to prevent it from overshadowing the extremely flavorful pork and nicely sautéed broccoli rabe.
The cheese, broccoli rabe and pork were initially layered on top of each other, but as I opened the roll up and started eating the sandwich, the ingredients became intertwined. I frequently stressed the importance of mixing the meat, cheese and onions on the grill for a cheesesteak. That same principle seemed to apply here. As the pork, sharp provolone and broccoli rabe all mixed together, the sandwich became even better from a textural standpoint.
The Aversa seeded roll had a nice crust with a bit of body and was soft and perfectly fresh within. The bottom of it was getting moist by the time I finished half of the sandwich, but that may be unavoidable when using roasted meat that I imagine was sitting in pan drippings and/or au jus.
I’ve only had a few Roast Pork Italiano sandwiches over the years, so I want to be cautious with my superlatives until I’ve had a wider sample. When I began my survey of the region’s cheesesteaks, I praised several of my early steaks to the sky, only to find later on – after eating many more – that they were middle-of-the-pack.
But there is no denying that I found Lil’ Nick’s roast pork sandwich to be extremely enjoyable. I hope to return there to try a hoagie or meatball sandwich at some point.
Lil’ Nick’s is only a few blocks north of Philadelphia’s sports complex. I stopped off to take shots of the stadiums that are the homes of the NFC – and hopefully Super Bowl – champion Eagles and National League champion Phillies while I was in the neighborhood.
A friend whose opinions on food hold a great deal of weight with me – and who regularly eats all over the country – recently mentioned that Philadelphia is the best sandwich city in the United States – something I’ve believed for many years. It’s doubly nice when they also have the best sports teams.
In addition to the above-mentioned survey of the area’s roast pork sandwiches, I’ve alluded in other posts to updating my Top 10 cheesesteaks list – and possibly expanding it to a top 20 – later this year. To make that happen, I will return to all of the steak shops that made the top 10, as well as the five honorable mentions and a handful of places I hadn’t yet tried when I posted the original list.
I’m not sure how many roast pork sandwiches I’ll be eating this year, but I expect to do a lot of rotating between those and cheesesteaks from week to week. If all goes according to plan, I’ll release my list of the best roast pork sandwiches and the revised cheesesteak list during the same week, likely some time between September and December.
While my focus for most of this year will be centered heavily on roast pork sandwiches and cheesesteaks, I will be mixing in other food items of interest along the way. As much as I love Italian-style long roll sandwiches, I’m not writing off barbecue, Jewish deli, Chinese food, pizza and the other favorites that I’ve touched on periodically since starting this blog.
5 thoughts on “Lil’ Nick’s Deli: Moving On to the Roast Pork Italiano”
I’m excited! I’m a huge fan of the pork and broccoli rabe sandwich. I may end up having to sped a week in Philadelphia to cover those and cheesesteaks and … I’ll start thinking about a trip to Bub and Pop’s, a good Sandwich shop downtown run by Philadelphians.
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That was a good looking sandwich! I’ve enjoyed the roast pork and arugula sandwich by Roli Roti by the Ferry Building many times. I look forward to your journey.
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I’ve never been a fan of vegetation on sandwiches, but I’d definitely give a pork w/rabe a try.
I wonder if the better sandwich places salt or brine their pork loins prior to roasting, to help keep them moist. Dry pork, especially a really lean cut like the loin, is brutal.
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I don’t know how common it is, but I believe John’s Roast Pork either dips their pork slices in au jus or pan drippings before putting them on the bread, or they may even just keep the slices sitting in the juice for a while before placing them in a sandwich.