The backbone of any good Italian hoagie - any well-made sandwich, really - is the bread, says Glen Macnow of WIP-AM (610).
"You get another stale roll that bites you back, that's the killer right there," says the sports-radio talk-show host.
At least three quality meats are also required (prosciutto, capicolla, mortadella, Genoa salami) - "Don't try to give me baloney" - along with sharp provolone that announces its presence in every bite; "snappy" onions; fresh tomatoes and long hot peppers marinated in oil for months. "I like the ones that make your head sweat," Macnow says.
Finally, it should be drizzled with oil: "Mayo on an Italian hoagie is a sin."
Tough standards. But Macnow takes his work very seriously. In the last month and a half, he's sampled more than 50 hoagies in his search for the region's finest. And that is only the latest in his study of Philly favorites, after, over the last five years, naming the best burger, ribs, pizza, and, of course, cheesesteak.
On Saturday, he's hosting the "Hoagie Hunt Finals" from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Fox & Hound Pub & Grille in King of Prussia. Macnow and a celebrity panel of judges including former Temple coach John Chaney will select the best Italian hoagie from his top choices (see below). The free event is open to the public, which will also vote on a "Listener's Choice" winner.
"I'm exhausted," says Macnow, who lost 20 pounds to prepare for the hoagie search and said he's never finished a full sandwich.
In the running for the title will be eight of Macnow's top-ranked sandwiches. He reviews each on air and posts reviews and rankings on www.610wip.com.
Some are, to be candid, harsh - and not just on the food. The bread at one place is described as "puffy, oversized and soft - the Derrick Coleman of hoagie rolls." Another is denounced as "the Joe Blanton of hoagies, and not just for its size (which is bulky, just like the Phils' third starter)."
"I've gone to some places where a hoagie is a meal. It's a treat," he says. "Other places, a hoagie is just a sandwich."
The quest for the "Best of" started a few years ago, when Macnow was on the air at night. "When you're on against the Phillies, you have to come up with some creative programming," he says. Food - real manly man food, no quiches or crepes allowed - seemed the way to go.
"Our station is a guy's station," Macnow says. "Guys talk about sports, guys talk about women, they talk about movies, and they talk about food."
That first year, the quest was to find the best pasta around. Listeners brought in their homemade macaroni, and he and on-air partner Anthony Gargano tried about 15 and named their favorite.
When Macnow shifted to his current midday time slot, he launched a search for the best burger, sampling offerings from 25 different joints. Ribs followed - partly because that's Macnow's favorite thing to eat - and he added celebrity judges, including two 325-pound Eagles offensive linemen.
Pizza, the next selection, was the easiest, Macnow said, because "I could eat pizza every day." And he did, for 40 days, then picked the best with a football player and a couple of chefs.
Last year, Macnow tackled cheesesteaks. He tried 45 in 45 days. ("It grows every year, which is problematic," he says.) For the final judging, he invited a celebrity panel and WIP listeners to help him pick the winners.
"I'm an everyday, good food guy," Macnow says.
What qualifies Macnow - who was raised in Buffalo, lives in Havertown, and works at a Bala Cynwyd radio station - to rate Philly's finest fare? "I can't tell you I have a tremendous, discriminating palate. I can't tell you I've had food science courses. But I can tell you that I have a tremendous interest in the food that our listeners, that guys, eat," Macnow says. "I'm enthusiastic and willing to put in the effort to eat at least 52 Italian hoagies, and that's more than most mere men are willing to do."
Gargano calls his partner "The Professor of Philadelphia Food" and "JFK" for "Junk Food King." He says Macnow is methodical about his quests and has a stick-to-itiveness that is admirable - or insane.
"Two days in, I said, 'I don't want to see another hoagie in my life,' " says Gargano, the huskier of the two men.
Macnow also has "a fine Philadelphia palate," which Gargano described as "someone who has experienced a multitude of Philadelphia food, be it a roast pork from John's, a roast beef from Nick's, or a cheesesteak from Geno's."
At the very least, Macnow, who has lived in the area for 20 years, has the lingo down. He described his blood type as "capicolla positive," pronouncing the Italian ham as gabbagool. He drops the final syllable of prosciutto and refers to the tomato sauce on pasta as gravy. He may be a medagon, but he seems to know his stuff.
Clipboard in hand, Macnow tried Hoagie No. 52 - from Cosmi's in South Philadelphia - during a break from a recent show. He chewed thoughtfully.
"It's better than average," he muses. "Spicy, very spicy."
He took another bite, then began to pick apart the sandwich's layers.
"I gotta examine. This is the important part," he says.
The hoagie had the required three meats, but the capicolla didn't impress Macnow - "It's not layered, no fat," he says. While there was a good amount of provolone, it was too mild for his palate. The long hots were fresh, better than the ones some delis pulled out of a jar. The roll was crispy outside and seeded, a plus, he judged.
Offhand, Macnow ranked Cosmi's offering among the top 25. He'd go over his notes later to pick a final spot. A good sandwich, he says.
But he doesn't think he'll be heading to Cosmi's - or anywhere else - for another Italian hoagie soon.
"When I did the rib thing I never got tired of ribs. Pizza, never got tired of pizza. This one, I'm looking forward to the Hoagie Hunt Finals," Macnow says. "I will not eat another Italian hoagie for the rest of the year."
But there is always next year, when he gets to start all over again. He hasn't decided yet, but he's considering a quest for the best roast pork or meatball sandwich.
Rossi's Bar & Grill
501 Morris Ave., Trenton; 609-394-9089
Fat Jack's BBQ
|1261 Blackwood Clementon Rd., Clementon; 856-309-7427
2604 E. Somerset St., Port Richmond; 215-425-4983
John's Roast Pork
14 E. Snyder Ave., South Philadelphia; 215-463-1951
152 W. Girard Ave.
2. Sarcone's Deli
734 S. Ninth St.
3. Salumeria at Reading Terminal Market
45 N. 12th St.
1528 Packer Ave.
5. Shank's and Evelyn's
932 S. 10th St.
6. Carlino's Market
2616 E. County Line Road
130 Almshouse Rd.
8. Primo Hoagies
1528 Ritner St.
(dozens of area locations)