Frozen steak sandwich in a boil-in bag?
It doesn't exactly have the mouth-watering appeal that comes from the sound of thin steak sizzling on a griddle and, oh my, the aroma of those onions frying next to it.
But after nearly two years - and more than 100 attempts - South Philly sandwich impresario Tony Lucidonio Jr. says he has found the winning formula for preparing frozen cheesesteak sandwiches for sale in grocery stores that won't result in something gross when popped in the microwave oven and/or boiled - the meat, that is. Never boil the roll.
The discovery, made less than two months ago, paves the way for the sale of Tony Luke's cheesesteak, roast-pork and chicken cheesesteak sandwiches in grocery stores across the nation.
The new venture, to be launched in the next few months, is through a partnership with South Jersey-based food distributor Rastelli Foods Group.
"I can't get into too much detail because we have a patent pending," Lucidonio said of the new frozen-sandwich preparation process. "It is the way the meat is made that allows the meat to go from a raw steak into a microwave or a boiler bag and come out as if it were grilled."
After cooking the meat, a hungry party would then microwave the enclosed roll, assemble and dig in. If the meat and roll were offered already assembled, preparation would be a failure, Lucidonio said, because, "by the time the meat gets hot enough inside the roll, the roll is a brick."
Don't be fooled. He is not suggesting that what you'll soon find in your grocer's frozen-food aisle could masquerade for the right-off-the-griddle, wrapped-in-grease-stained-paper original.
"Is it as good as a steak I just pulled off my grill? No," said Lucidonio, who also acts and sings. "But is it the best frozen steak? It is the closest thing you will get to having someone cook on a flat-top griddle."
If recent sellout sales of Tony Luke's cheesesteak, chicken cheesesteak and roast-pork sandwiches on QVC Network are any indication, cows, chickens and pigs are in trouble.
In a statement issued yesterday, Rastelli, which helped Lucidonio devise the secret meat-prep formula, said it also intended to distribute Tony Luke's fare to its restaurants and commercial accounts. Plans also are in the works for free-standing Tony Luke's "quick-service outlets opening throughout the country and internationally," according to the release.
From a major sandwich master in town came only well wishes for Lucidonio yesterday.
"Good for him," said Frank Olivieri Jr., owner of Pat's King of Steaks, founded in 1930.
An assemble-at-home cheesesteak sandwich, Olivieri said, "was my idea about five years ago. But I could not see the American public basically taking the onion out, taking the Cheese Whiz out, nuking, boiling and assembling - and having it taste anywhere Philadelphian."
None of Olivieri's experiments pleased him, he said.
"Maybe he perfected a way to do it," Olivieri said of Lucidonio. "I hope Tony's is a smash."
In business only since Feb. 3, 1992, Tony Luke's is a relative novice in Philadelphia's niche steak-sandwich market. Locally, there are two sites on Oregon Avenue and a satellite store in Citizens Bank Park. In fact, what first garnered Tony Luke's any gastronomic acclaim was not its steak sandwich, but its roast-pork sandwich - winning, among other commendations, the Golden Dish award from Gentleman's Quarterly in the mid-1990s.
Lucidonio, 46, a South Philly kid who now lives in Glassboro, said he had "the absolute most respect in the world" for the other steak-sandwich vendors in Philadelphia. (He won't call them "competition," saying they're all just doing what they do best.)
"In Philadelphia, there's a million great places to eat great cheesesteaks," Lucidonio said. "But sometimes, it's great to have one in the freezer."