For John Bucci Jr. (“John John” to his friends) making sandwiches isn’t just a job, it’s a lifelong family tradition. But a recent battle with leukemia came close to ending it all. Thankfully, with the help and support from relatives, customers, and a successful bone marrow transplant, Bucci is back at the grill, building up his health, a few days at a time.
Dominic Bucci opened John’s Roast Pork in 1930, a tiny shack on the corner of Snyder and Weccacoe that pumped out juicy pork and meatball sandwiches to the workers from the surrounding factories. The shop was eventually handed down to John Bucci Sr. who ran it night and day with his wife Vonda. The menu slowly expanded to include breakfast sandwiches and cheesesteaks, which Bucci was never really fond of making, they were added due to customer demand.
After the passing of John Bucci Sr. in 1991, both John Jr. and his mother took over the business, using the same exact family recipe, and pouring love and attention to detail into every sandwich. The combination of seasonings and exact method of cooking the pork is so secretive that only John, his mother, and niece know it. Not even John’s wife Vickie, or Vince Long, the shop’s manager have been told, something that they aren’t visibly bothered by, it’s just that special.
The roast pork starts as a 25 pound Hatfield picnic shoulder that is butchered and butterflied, then rubbed with the family’s secret recipe consisting of only fresh, never dried herbs. Roasted in the luncheonette’s oven for four hours, the drippings are collected for use in gravy. When finished, the meat rests overnight and is sliced fresh every morning on a deli slicer. It is then simmered in the saporous jus, waiting to be served to customers, piping hot. The recommended way to eat a roast pork according to the Buccis is with aged provolone, hot peppers, and onions. Those who prefer greens on their sandwich, won’t find broccoli rabe on the menu. Vonda believes it’s way too bitter and overpowers the flavors of the pork; look for sauteed spinach instead, it’s garlicky sweetness, is more complimentary to the meat.
When John Jr. returned to the shop after leaving St. Joe’s, he focused on developing a bigger and better cheesesteak. “The roast pork sandwich is our bread and butter, but Philly is known for the cheesesteak, so we had to make ours the best one” says Bucci. And that he did, winning numerous awards including being named number one by Craig LaBan and Glen Macnow, the sandwich has also received accolades from Esquire, Gourmet, and even the prestigious James Beard Foundation.
With a strong focus on quality, John uses rich, sliced sirloin, a whole twelve ounces per sandwich. Chopped onions are laid on the grill first, the meat on top to prevent it from burning and drying out, also allowing the aromas and juices from the onions to permeate the beef. Bucci makes a point to leave the meat alone as it cooks, “It’s already dead, if you keep whacking it with the spatulas, it’s only going to dry out.” Evidence of Bucci’s love for cheese lies in every sandwich, as the aged provolone, or American is laid on thick, five slices in all. You won’t find a can of whiz here, both John and his mother despise the artificial stuff. The most popular steak is the traditional, provolone and fried onions, but John recommends trying the Milano with roasted tomatoes, garlic and provolone or the bruschetta steak, which you are sure not to find elsewhere.
The prodigious sandwiches coming off the grill need bread that can act as a strong foundation, while staying soft, and tender to the bite. Bucci swears by Carangi Baking Company, explaining that these are the only rolls he trusts to sop up the meat’s juices, while staying fully intact. The weather plays a big factor in the bread order, Bucci is dead on at figuring out how many customers will arrive whether it’s rain, shine or snow, but when the bread runs out, the doors are closed for the day. An oft voiced complaint is about the hours at John’s, the grill is turned off at 2:30 and the family leaves at 3:00 on the dot. Your best bet is to head on over right before or after the lunch rush, or send someone down to pick up a bunch for the office.
With emotion pouring through his voice, John recalls how thankful he is for his family and the many customers that wrote him letters while in the hospital. Recovering slowly, but surely, he hopes to return full-time to the grill in six to eight weeks and continue his family’s legacy. A new lease on life has breathed an air of exuberance into John John’s demeanor. The once jokingly dubbed “Pork Nazi” vows to never scream or yell in the shop again. We can only imagine that the man upstairs must really love sandwiches.