Discover the history of Philadelphia’s official cold sandwich
Among Philly eats, it doesn’t get much more iconic than the hoagie. The hefty sandwich of Italian origin (but now adopted by many cultures) has been an affordable lunch mainstay for the region’s residents and visitors for at least a century. And while the hoagie continues to evolve with new ingredients and modern interpretations, the classic version is as popular as ever. So what constitutes a traditional hoagie, and how did it rise to prominence? The following is a primer on all things hoagie.
What Is A Hoagie?
Declared the “official sandwich of Philadelphia” by Mayor Ed Rendell in 1992 as part of the first Wawa Hoagie Day—now celebrated during Wawa Welcome America! Fourth of July festivities—the hoagie is a built-to-order sandwich on a long Italian roll, typically filled with deli meat and cheese, garnished with fresh lettuce, tomatoes and onions, and finished with a drizzle of oregano-vinegar dressing. Now, hoagies can be filled with tuna, chicken cutlets and roasted vegetables, among other fillings. Because of its simplicity, the quality of a hoagie truly depends on the quality of its ingredients—though of course, preferences for crusty or soft, or seeded or plain bread are individual.
While similarities endure between the hoagie and the submarine (a term used in New England and elsewhere), the hoagie has some distinct qualities. Unlike a “grinder,” it is never heated or toasted.
Accounts of the hoagie’s origin vary greatly, and scholars are still debating exactly where and when the sandwich was conceived. Here’s a look at some of the colorful competing stories that continue to circulate:
According to a 1967 article in American Speech, the word “hoagie” was first used in the late 19th or early 20th century among the Italian community in South Philadelphia. In those days, “On the hoke” was a slang term for a poor person. Deli owners would give away meat and cheese scraps on a long roll called a “hokie,” but Italian immigrants pronounced it “hoagie.”
The Philadelphia Almanac and Citizen’s Manual tells of late 19th-century street vendors named “hokey-pokey men,” who sold antipasto salad, meats and cookies. When Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Pinafore opened in Philadelphia in 1879, bakeries produced a long loaf called the pinafore, and the enterprising hokey-pokey men sliced it in half, filled it with antipasto and sold it as a “hokey,” a name that evolved into “hoagie.”
Late Night Hoagie
In 1925, a Chester couple opened the A. DiCostanza grocery store, which stayed open past midnight to accommodate gamblers from the nearby Palermo’s bar. One night, a hungry card player walked to the back of the store when Catherine DiCostanza was cooking peppers and asked if she would make him a sandwich. She asked what kind of meat he wanted and he waved to the deli counter, and said, “Put everything you have in the case in it.” She took a loaf of Vienna bread and sliced it open and stuffed it. He asked her to put some of her peppers in, too. He left, and an hour later, the place was full of hungry gamblers asking for the same kind of sandwich, which would later be known as the hoagie.
Italian immigrants working on the Hog Island shipyard during World War I (1914-1918) would bring giant sandwiches filled with cold cuts, spices and vegetables for their lunches. The workers were nicknamed “hoggies,” and over time, the name, with a different spelling, came to be attached to the sandwiches.
In another version, Italian workers at Hog Island brought these same type of sandwiches to lunch, and an Irish worker looked enviously at his Italian friend and offered to buy one if his wife would make two. The Italian man went home and said, “Tomorrow, make two sandwiches, one for me and one for Hogan.” Thereafter, everyone started to call the sandwiches “Hogans,” later shortened to hoagie.
King of the Hoggies
During the Depression (1929-1939), an unemployed Philadelphian named Al DePalma went to Hog Island to find work on the shipyard. When he saw workers on their lunch breaks eating giant sandwiches, his first thought was “Those fellas look like a bunch of hogs.” Instead of applying for a job, he decided to open up his own luncheonette and listed the sandwiches on his menu as “hoggies.” During the late 1930s, DePalma joined forces with Buccelli’s Bakery and developed the perfect 8-inch roll. Later, during World War II, he turned the back room of the restaurant into a factory to supply sandwiches for the shipyard workers, thus earning him the nickname as “The King of the Hoggies.” Because customers kept calling them “hoagies,” he eventually changed the name.
Hoagies Named For Famous Philadelphians
Few people have the distinction of having a sandwich named in their honor. And yet, some famous Philadelphians have achieved this with a signature hoagie.
The Italian hoagie (DiLusso salami, imported mortadella, hot capicola and mild provolone) at Cosmi’s Deli in South Philadelphia is named for former Philadelphia Inquirer food writer Rick Nichols.
Also at Cosmi’s is the Holiday hoagie named for sportscaster Howard Eskin, which boasts a tangy filling of prosciutto, sharp provolone, Italian tuna, olives, roasted peppers and balsamic vinegar.
The Rendelli, named for hoagie enthusiast and former Mayor and Governor Ed Rendell, was a big seller at Wawa when it was introduced during his mayoral term in the 1990s. The sandwich featured provolone, ham, pepperoni, iceberg, tomato and sweet peppers.