Food Odes: Alla Spina’s North Philly Sausage Cheesesteak

Food52 editor Brette Warshaw's Philly cheesesteak nostalgia is anything but cliché.

  • Photo: @allaspinaphilly
  • Photo: FoodBooz

There will always be that one glorious dish that is near and dear to your heart, a food that is synonymous with satisfaction and perfection. We asked our friends in the food and editorial world to write #FoodOdes to the dishes that they love. Here, an ode to Alla Spina’s North Philly Sausage Cheesesteak, from Food52 managing editor Brette Warshaw (@BstarWarshaw).

Cheesesteaks, as a college student in Philadelphia, were my guilty foods.

They were not my guilty pleasure foods, like cookies and ice cream and French fries and cake, the things that make me feel good and warm and fuzzy because I love them so much. No. They were the foods that I turned to at 3am when everything else was closed, the things whose wrappers and cardboard-y ends I’d find in my trash and sigh.

They were the things I’d never order at 8pm on a Monday night while dining alone at my favorite restaurant in Philadelphia.

Yes, that restaurant was Alla Spina, a restaurant known for its mortadella hot dogs and beer and double-decker burgers and guinea hen poutine. But that night, I was being ladylike; I was being dainty. I was drinking white wine and eating salad. I was slowly working my way through a dozen oysters. I was reading a book called Oedipus and the Devil, and I was feeling wonderfully, proudly, like an adult.

That was before the cheesesteak came.

I had eaten at Alla Spina enough for the staff to know that I always ordered a homemade choco-taco to go, that I always asked the bartenders embarrassingly blunt questions (“Are you single?”) when I had too many drinks, and that I really, really liked food. So they sent it over. The manager shoved my oyster platter and salad plate and wine glass out of the way—I was taking up lots of real estate at this point—and he put the North Philly Sausage Cheesesteak in front of me.

Everything melts together and you’ve got this fatty-cheesey-salty-crunchy-gooey-oh-my-god-I-can’t-handle-this thing.

This thing in front of me was house-made black pepper sausage—no casing—seared and chopped up on the plancha, piled into a pretzel roll (also house made), and then topped with caramelized onions and a “spicy beer cheese” made with cream cheese, asiago, cayenne, and Allagash White.

At this point—exactly one year later—I’ve heard that description more than twenty times, because each time I ask, How do you make this again? I can never pay attention. I stop listening halfway through and I nod and I smile, and then my eyes glaze over because I can only think of the sandwich in front of me and the fact that it’s there and not in my hands and that I’m not eating it at that very second.

Honestly, it doesn’t even matter what’s in it, or what’s in the sausage, or how the they make that beer cheese, because when you’re eating it, everything melts together and you’ve got this fatty-cheesey-salty-crunchy-gooey-oh-my-god-I-can’t-handle-this thing that’s about to be gone and oh, then it’s gone, and the barbecue chips on the side are all that’s left, and then wait—there’s a sausage-y drip over there that you can swipe up with the edge of your last chip, and then oh-my-god-noooo it’s really over.

So when people ask what I miss most about Philly—which is often, since I moved to New York one month ago—I roll my eyes, get over myself, and reply with the most quintessential of answers: “The cheesesteak.”

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