In a crowded sandwich-eating world of hoagies, grinders, subs, heroes, and po'boys, Norristown's own zep flies somewhat beneath the radar.
But in certain quarters, the intensely local, seven-decade meat-on-a-roll tradition is so closely associated with its birthplace to qualify as the Montgomery County version of Proust's madeleine.
"You take any Norristown kid from the '50s and you give him now, 50 years later, a zep," said Jerry Spinelli, 68, a children's book author and Norristown native, "and he will be transported back to his hometown."
The spicy, tangy zep is, Spinelli and the partisans argue, distinct from anything else that comes over a sandwich-shop counter, though the difference is admittedly subtle. And, as with the cheesesteak, there are disputed origins, two time-honored flagship shops, and separate camps arguing over the "real" vendor of choice.
This is burdensome history for simple workingman's food - but then again, it's a heavy sandwich. Enough salami to cover a foot of wide, golden-crusted roll, enough provolone to cover the salami, thumb-thick chunks of raw onion and slabs of tomato across the whole thing. Add oregano, salt, pepper, and olive oil to taste. Hot pepper relish if desired. And that's it.
In a strict sense, the zep is little but a variation on the traditional hoagie, with no lettuce and only one meat. But don't talk it down in Norristown, where Katie Kohler describes the combination as a matter of local pride.
"I just gave you the recipe for one of the most famous sandwiches in the world," said Kohler, longtime sandwich-maker at Eve's Lunch, where zeps dominate the menu so heavily, there isn't a leaf of lettuce in the building.
Although the sandwich turns up on menus from Bridgeport to Phoenixville, the recognized epicenters of zep culture are both Norristown fixtures: Eve's, at 310 E. Johnson Highway, and Lou's, at 414 E. Main St.
Eve's, a bare-bones, tile-floored sandwich shop in a strip center, might not look the part, but it is storied in zep history. It is two relocations and one name change removed from its origins as Linfante's, a Main Street drugstore that was among the first to make the zep.
Lou's, a vintage-1941 lunch counter a couple doors down from a funeral parlor, can also claim a lineage that places it near the sandwich's origin in 1938 - the year after the Hindenburg disaster in Lakehurst, N.J., splashed zeppelin pictures across newspapers nationwide - though neither can properly claim to be the inventor.
Just who made the first zep, however, has long been shrouded in mystery. The owners of Eve's and Lou's both point toward a sandwich maker on Main Street, just west of Lou's, but their accounts diverge.
Marge Alba, 81, daughter of Lou's founder, Lou Bondi, recalls that the inventor was a Greek man, as do her sons, and that the sandwich was named after the zeppelin shapes their thick rolls evoked. Across town, Anthony Mashett, 54, whose parents took over Eve's from early zep adopter Joseph Linfante, said he was told the inventor was Italian, possibly with a name that started Z-e-p - hence, an eponymous sandwich.
Norristown's city directory for 1938 lists James and Anna Pascuzzi as owners of a restaurant on Main Street, a block from Linfante's. Both Pascuzzis are long dead, but Anna's niece, Barbara Stankus, 72, said the sandwich was indeed born in her uncle's small, crowded shop, where she - as a very small child - used to try to ride "Uncle Jim's" Great Dane, Wendy.
"When the zeppelin crashed in New Jersey, it was around the time that he had this brilliant idea for a sandwich he wanted to sell," said Stankus, who now lives in Oregon. "Where it came from, I don't know. ...
"He used Italian hard-crusted rolls that were shaped like a zeppelin, so he named it the zep."
He may have been a better sandwich-maker than businessman. The store disappears from directories in the '40s. A Jim's Original Zep Shop appeared nearby in the '50s, but is long gone.
Today, the defining aspect of the best zeps remains the bread, both in name and in character.
Time has brought variations in some ingredients - you can find, even in the sandwich's temples, a cheesesteak zep, a tuna-salad zep, and the hamburger zep - but Eve's and Lou's both place their reputations on chewy, thick rolls from the same Conshohocken bakery.
"It is a niche," said Michael Gambone, 47, assistant vice president of the Conshohocken Italian Bakery, which produces 300 or so zep rolls a day, compared to thousands of slimmer, shorter hoagie rolls. "Not that many people make the zep."
Zep enthusiasts are quick to praise the roll.
"I get a zep at least once a week," said Norristown barber Pierre Long outside Eve's, where he had just polished off a midafternoon chicken-salad zep. "It's - you know - that bread."
There is, however, one problem with being a frequent zep eater: a New Year's resolution that involves running the 1.6 miles from Lou's to Eve's regularly would be a necessity, lest one come to resemble a zep.
"And talk to your cardiologist first," said Montgomery County Sheriff John Durante, who calculated he had eaten "hundreds" of zeps in his life, starting in Linfante's.
"Put it this way: I could eat 20 to 30 a year, and that's a low estimate," Durante said.
Just don't try asking for one by name in hoagie territory. The Hindenburg went over better.
"It's a localism. It's just a variation of the same sandwich," sniffed hoagie expert Howard Robboy, a sociology professor at the College of New Jersey who has researched sandwiches, and their names, for decades.
He has never had a zep, but doubted it could shake his devotion to his sandwich of choice: the three-meat Italian hoagie served by DiCostanza's in Boothwyn.
If Robboy brought that recipe to a certain Norristown spot in the time of restaurateur Lou Bondi, the sandwich-shop founder would have glowered, reported his kin.
"My grandfather always said, 'You want a hoagie? Go to a hoagie shop. This is a zep shop,' " Lou Alba said.