Good Life

Eats & Drinks: Primanti Bros.’ sandwich has cult following

A pastrami sandwich at Primanti Bros. in State College on Wednesday, March 18, 2015. The sandwich is made with fresh pastrami, melted provolone cheese, hand cut fries, house made cole slaw, and tomatoes on italian bread. Patrons can also add an egg to the sandwich.
A pastrami sandwich at Primanti Bros. in State College on Wednesday, March 18, 2015. The sandwich is made with fresh pastrami, melted provolone cheese, hand cut fries, house made cole slaw, and tomatoes on italian bread. Patrons can also add an egg to the sandwich. CDT photo

A few weeks ago at the Philadelphia Flower Show I was helping Kim Tait serve shrub to the steady queue of people streaming past the Tait Farm stand.

Sales were brisk because the products sell themselves once people taste. I was bagging items for a woman who handed me her credit card when I noticed that her last name was Primanti.

“Are you related to the sandwich?” I asked ungraciously.

But, being polite, Suzanne Primanti just smiled and said “I’m related to the shop that created the sandwich. My husband’s father opened the first Primanti Bros. shop back in the ’30s.”

Scoop! I could find out from the source what all the hoopla is about. She assured me that her husband, Dick Primanti, would be happy to talk to me about the business and handed me her phone number.

“Wait, it’s a 610 area code,” I said expecting to see 412.

“We live in Chester County,” Suzanne said. More mystery.

If you haven’t been downtown in a while, there’s a big new presence on Hiester Street. Primanti Bros. opened in the former Gingerbread Man space last fall and already looks like it has been there for a long time. Lunchtime crowds are strong and the friendly staff has the efficiency of a well-oiled machine.

“The brand has a cult following,” said manager Greg DuBois, a State College native who graduated with a degree in hotel, restaurant and institutional management in 1997 and worked at Damon’s in State College for 20 years. He is now the managing partner, aka “head coach,” at the State College Primanti Bros. store. “We’ve added lots of menu items, but we stay true to the sandwich that has been made the same way for over 70 years.”

When we spoke on the phone, Dick Primanti shared some details about the beginning of the business. He said that the “About Us” page on the Primanti Bros. website is accurate; his father’s brother, Joe Primanti, had a cart in the strip district and sold sandwiches to truckers and shift workers from 3 a.m. to 3 p.m. He opened a small shop down near the Old Warehouse District on 18th Street. Joe’s brothers Dick and Stanley joined the business at that point, and they were joined by a cousin, John DePriter, who had been a Navy cook. DePriter, with a goal of simplifying an order for a sandwich with coleslaw and fries on the side, piled it all on top in an efficiency measure and the huge sandwiches were soon flying out the door, able to be eaten on the run from the cab of a truck or while standing on the produce platform.

“My father was involved for 40 years, until the early ’70s, when the steel industry in Pittsburgh was in steady decline,” Dick said. “Joe had moved to California and both Stanley and John were deceased so when a steady customer, Jim Patrinos, came forward with an offer, my dad sold the business to him in 1975. Jim ran it the same way that we ran it and kept the name and deserves all the credit for the expansion and growth.”

When I asked him if he had worked in the shop, he laughed and said “only for one week, when my dad was sick; none of my cousins or sister did either. Our dad didn’t want that for us. He wanted us to have professional lives,” Dick said. “I moved to Philly to attend Drexel, studying metallurgy to become an engineer, though my college years were interrupted when I was drafted and spent four years in the army. I eventually finished school in business and computers, and married Suzanne, who graduated from the same Pittsburgh high school that I went to and then went to Carnegie Mellon University. But since graduating and getting a job, we have lived outside Philadelphia, in Chester County.”

But Suzanne and Dick Primanti are no strangers to Centre County. Two of their three sons are Penn State grads and one was a member of the Penn State football team, class of 2001.

Primanti Bros.’ subsequent 40-year era under Patrinos saw tremendous growth for the company, with multiple locations opening in the Pittsburgh area and beyond. A couple of years ago, Patrinos and his partner sold the company to an equity firm that has put together a corporate team to expand the brand. Twenty more Primanti Bros. stores are expected to open in the next two years, starting with a York location.

Happy Valley has always been the common battleground for the friendly animosity between the youth of the eastern and western camps of the commonwealth, with an argument debated endlessly. Which is “better,” Philadelphia or Pittsburgh?

Having already “come out” to being a Philly native, I admit that I have lived four decades in central Pennsylvania, twice as long as I lived in Philly, where I honed my palate on cheesesteaks, yes, from Pat’s on Ninth Street, as well as Geno’s across the street. I’m always eager to champion a food that is a regional specialty and to learn about how it evolved. But there is something especially endearing about the Primanti Bros. brand and it’s “Almost Famous” sandwich that doesn’t have the chest-thumping, bling-y pretense of Pat’s “King of Steaks.” The line is drawn, Philly; maybe there will be a Primanti Bros. on Ninth Street someday and a Food Network throwdown. But here in the neutral middle, we can embrace them all.