In “The Best Sandwich in Philly” series, contributors make an argument for what they think is the best — or, at least, their favorite — sandwich in the Philly area. Disagree? Want to tell us about the best hoagie? cheesesteak? Make your case in 300 words or less, and submit it at bit.ly/40JvDBI.
I’m a little shocked that my favorite sandwich is at Grace & Proper. When I visited the Bella Vista restaurant, I assumed it was too new, too Euro, too nice to be a serious roast pork sandwich contender.
After all, my mom is the kind of Italian cook who thinks the 4th of July is a good time to simmer a pot of roast pork on the stove. You know, just in case someone at the barbeque wants “a real meal.” In high school at St. John Neumann, lunch period often meant skipping the cafeteria to pile into my ‘97 Camry for a trip across Snyder Ave. to John’s Roast Pork. But when I ordered the bifana at Grace & Proper on a trip with friends a few nights before Christmas, my preconceptions vanished as quickly as the plate in front of me.
The heart of the bifana is boneless pork loin marinated for 24 hours in white wine, garlic, cayenne, and paprika, with a touch of salt and bay leaves. It’s slow-roasted to the point where it could easily be shredded into pulled pork. But in an artful touch, they slice it a bit thicker than the roast pork typically used in sandwiches. The result is a meat with the tenderness of pulled pork and the satisfying chunk of a cutlet.
The bifana, like much of the menu, pays homage to co-owner Chris Fetfatzes’ late mother, Olimipa, who was born in Portugal. Fetfatzes and Heather Annechiarico, who also own nearby Hawthorne’s together, traveled to Portugal, staying in his mother’s house and visiting the places she enjoyed.
“He wanted to get it right for his mom,” said general manager Ryan Rayer, who also served as executive chef while building the menu with current chef Wes Sherlock. “And I really think we did it.”
Plus, they get the bread right. The bifana sits snugly between a six-inch Portuguese roll, a pao de avo bico, or grandma’s bread, from Teixeira’s Bakery in Newark. The outside is crunchy; similar to a ciabatta. The inside is as plush as a dinner roll, soaking up the juice and protecting the crispy, beaked shell. It holds up, even in a neighborhood with Sarcone’s just up the street.
The combination came together after endless experimentation, only days before opening last November.
“I knew that we had it when we were speechless, truly,” Rayer said. “When you try something, and it’s close but not right, you have so many things to say. When we finally took the bite of the sandwich on the right roll, the right thickness of pork, it was just perfect.”
It’s a simple sandwich that’s more of its neighborhood than you’d imagine, what some would call a working man’s pork sandwich, hidden in what looks more like a trendy date spot. It goes for $7 (order two), is available until midnight, and served with a squirt bottle of yellow mustard that wouldn’t look out of place on the counter of a Delaware Ave lunch shack.
“It wasn’t lost on us where we were,” Rayer said. “We’re in South Philly, you can’t just have any pork sandwich. “I can’t compete with grandma’s meatballs. I can’t compete with the gravy. But I can make a really good pork sandwich you haven’t had before.”
And while the vinho verde is lovely, I washed mine down with a High Life. South Philly may be changing, but only so much.