Some guys are just wired to battle the big guy. And wiry Joey Valerio, who is all of maybe 5-foot-6 and as trim as the Norristown teenager he once was 50 years ago, is wired to do the one thing that would scare the pants off of someone with less guts: Whip the Super Wawa a block away from Joey D’s on Main.
We’re talking about a war being waged at an old gas station Joey bought from an old Italian family on the road that connects Conshohocken’s auto mall to the courthouse district in Norristown, where a jury found Bill Cosby guilty of being Not America’s Dad.
Joey runs a Sunoco on a rough-around-the-edges hunk of real estate on 1100 Ridge Pike in Plymouth Meeting that pumps out diesel for truckers, unleaded gas for cops, and homemade egg, pork, and zep sandwiches for men in work boots every day starting at 4 a.m.
It’s a place like few others in the suburbs of Philly because, like so many of the best neighborhood gems in Philly, Joey D’s is more than a throwback. It’s an other. A place that Joey has willed into existence with food as a side dish, only to see it turn into the main course because — let’s face it — who else is gonna make you a burger with meat from the local butcher these days?
“Joey knows everybody’s name,” Norristown Police Cpl. Chuck Deardoff says after I spy him in a spontaneous group-hug-slash-scrum by the front door with Joey and two others. It’s not that people inside this small place are best friends or even the same political stripe. They’d probably stop talking if they started talking politics. Fact is, customers don’t talk much to the cooking staff, ever — a crew of four who assemble hoagies and sandwiches with their heads down for hours on end.
But there’s something uncommonly warm in here. Like your kitchen. (If your kitchen had bottles of motor oil on shelves near Mentos mints, Tic Tacs, and a fridge of single-serve cheesecake.)
Want a doughnut? Reach into a giant rectangular box of Suzy Jo’s on the counter near the short-order grill; help yourself. Lottery tickets? I met one customer, Mark Williams, who reached behind the counter and grabbed sheets that had been put aside for when he came in.
Williams joshed longtime cashier Anna DiSanto-Matzik when she rang him up for a drink.
“I can get it for less at Wawa,” he said.
“Shut up,” Anna cracked with a street-smart smile, “before I smack you.”
Then, moments later, as though that had never happened: “See ya, Anna!”
“See ya, Mark!”
This place doesn’t exude Hallmark Card sentimentality. Then again, this strip of Ridge isn’t Hallmark territory. Here in Black Horse, as the locals call it, the post office box says Plymouth Meeting, but the soul of its people is soldered with former Rust Belt, factory worker attitude.
“There’s a feeling in here,” says Joey, 67. “I can’t put it into words.”
Black customers. White customers. Latin American immigrant customers. Almost all men and all cramming into narrow aisles where fresh salads, refrigerated hoagies, and a self-serve hot dog counter intermingle with homespun randomness.
A small infantry of cashiers work the counter where not too long ago, the hottest item surely was a box of Newports, maybe Pall Malls for the guys who fought in World War II, when nearby Norristown was still a hefty industrial borough a straight shot west of Philadelphia. The gas station was owned during much of the 20th century by a single Italian American family. Joey bought it around the 1980s.
The place is packed at 7 a.m., and the customers are still streaming steadily after the grill shuts down at noon and all that’s left are piles of sandwiches under heat lamps or in glass refrigerators.
“Nothing like it,” said Rich Gale, a 36-year-old juvenile probation school instructor from down the street who, after just a year working in these parts, has been converted to Joey’s homecooked food over Wawa’s brilliantly efficient fare down the block.
Still, the Wawa was packed as I drove by. To each his own. There’s still room for that thanks to Joey’s hustle.
“I’ve seen the whole place evolve,” says Deardoff, who in 20 years as a local cop has seen the place turn into a homey destination. “I [once] did the Keto diet for a while, and they would make me a breakfast bowl of just eggs with every meat possible.”
Joey has owned the place for more than 40 years. He’s been doing food for less than half of that — and kicked it up to smorgasbord level with wife Denise’s help in recent years. Sales took a big hit after Wawa opened a few years ago. But business has been bouncing back.
Customer Sam Seghetti remembers when Joey was selling only hot dogs out of a pot. Now, the 89-year-old retired mailman works there.
“I’m just a gopher,” Sam says.
“He’s a neighborhood guy,” Joey says back.
Yep. In just a neighborhood gem.