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Cheesesteaks from a drive-thru window

These guys want you to drive up to a window, order a Whiz wit' and whiz off.

Jim Nasuti and John Marsella own 82 Taco Bells, KFCs and Burger Kings in the region. They've each been at the fast-food game for more than 30 years, partners for 25 of them.

That's a lot of fast-food Mexican, burgers, and chicken - done fast.

How about a quick-serve concept of South Philadelphia-style street food, such as cheesesteaks, roast pork, and pasta?

Customers would drive up to a window, order a Whiz wit' and whiz off.

It's not so simple, as other entrepreneurs have found out. Quality is essential, but so is speed.

Who might know better about speed - and consistency, for that matter - than two guys who own 82 Taco Bell, KFC and Burger King franchise stores?

So here we are on Route 413, a few minutes off I-95 in Levittown, at Zio Gio, which opened in December. Pull up to the drive-thru window, order a meatball sandwich at the speaker, drive around, and pay at the window. One minute and 42 seconds after the words "meatball sandwich" are uttered, a woman reaches out to hand over a bag with the sandwich. (You dare not eat a meatball sandwich while driving, by the way. Unboxed 35 minutes later in Center City, the sandwich is delicious.)

The next question is why would Jim Nasuti and John Marsella - two successful guys approaching traditional retirement age - veer from the tried-and-true world of Quesaritos and Whoppers and finger-lickin' good, building a new quick-service brand entirely from scratch.

"It's better than retiring," Marsella said, in an interview this week.

"John was trying to slow down," Nasuti said.

"We wanted to be in business for ourselves," Marsella said. Fast-food franchisees are essentially management companies; the systems, procedures, recipes and marketing are all developed and dictated from corporate headquarters.

"We are disciplined businessmen," he said. "The fact is, we know how to run multiple restaurants successfully."

They set up Zio Gio ("Uncle Johnny's," after Marsella) in a former Taco Bell. (They opened another Taco Bell nearby.) After developing recipes, some from Marsella's family, which lived around 11th and Bigler Streets in South Philadelphia, they set up a test drive-thru at Summerwood Corp., their Conshohocken headquarters.

They experimented with cooking. Chef Dave DeMarco uses state-of-the-art combi ovens that can do everything from dehydrating the basil used to season the french fries to roasting beef, pork and chicken and simmering four kinds of meatballs. Food roasts all night; it takes six hours to make the red gravy, Marsella said.

Liscio's supplies the rolls par-baked, and employees bake them off every few hours. To make a cheesesteak, for example, a grill person scoops pregrilled steak from a steamer, places it on the grill for a minute to caramelize and hands it off to another worker, who slides it into a roll with cheese. They also fill sandwiches as wraps, which are grilled in a panini press; these are easier to eat in a car.

Besides sandwiches, the menu includes bowls (pasta, potato and salads to which the customer can add a protein). For dessert, there's a sort of deconstructed cannoli - a scoop of filling with sweet chips for dunking.

When thinking about a location for the prototype, they chose Levittown specifically because it has plenty of good hoagie shops and Italian eateries.

But, Nasuti said, "the convenience of a quick-service restaurant literally means getting your order in four minutes." He said they are close to hitting that speed goal.

Zio Gio has a counter for walk-ins, whether it's dine-in or takeout. If you're eating in the dining room, an employee will bring out the food, which is made to order.

A second location is being planned for Southampton, Bucks County.