An interview with Joe P. by Joe D.
You can take the lad out of Philly but you can’t take the Italian out of the lad
Every time you think you got life figured out, it moves you on.
Joe Devoy does the asking Joe P, the man behind the amazing Joe P’s Cheesesteak’s, does the answering. As you would expect from knowing these two the questions aren’t your run of the mill and the answers don’t disappoint either.
Q1. When did you fall in love with food?
A. I grew up as the pickiest eater, my family called me bread and butter, answers Joe P with his customary gentle smile. That or butter noodle was what they called me. I started working in kitchens when I was 14 and in high school. I was a dishwasher and broke and figured I better start trying food. As crazy as it sounds, I liked it, even the vegetables.
Q2. Tell me about your background, people and food and growing up.
A. My Mom was Italian from Philly (Joe says this like Italy is a country somewhere inside the continent of North Philly). My Dad was from way down in Virginia, eight or ten hours away. He ran up this way when he was young, up to Chester County, and they met each other there. All of my mom’s grandparents came off the boat from Abruzzo in Italy, DiLuigi and Mingione. They landed in New York and headed straight for North Philly.
My Great Granddad started the Italian social club. My Mom’s recipe for sauce and meatballs came from her Mom that came from her Mom. I didn’t really appreciate that growing up.
Q3. Alright, you are growing up in Denver, walk me through it?
A. I started working in Dave’s Diner, moved up to the road to The Reinhold’s Inn, cheesesteaks and pizza downstairs and nicer upstairs. My Mom was dating the chef at Reinhold’s so that made it awkward (needless to say, Joe says this with that shrug, jaw down head up, if you know Joe you have seen it before). I worked here for 4 years, I did the work, 30 hours a week and school (funny this is the only mention of school in the whole chat). I did a bit of everything there.
Q4. How did you end up in Philly?
A. A friend of mine, Brett, and I were going to move to New York to go to sound school. He was a year behind me and while I was waiting for him to finish, I got a DUI. Living in Denver without a car is bordering on impossible, so I headed for Philly. I was 19, started working in a Cajun place called Bourbon Blue. They gave me a chance. I was cooking every station, all these guys were college-trained chefs, but I guess the head chef and I just hit it off. I was on the sauté station on the weekends, he was getting me to do the dessert special and I guess I started to get confident. I was standing beside all these chefs and I was holding my own. My school was the 30 hours a week from when I was 14 all the way to 19. I remember calling my Mom and calling my Grandma, “Hey mom, I just cooked risotto and it’s goooood!”
Q5. What happened next?
A. I moved across the street to Caputo’s, a pizza and steak shop. We got voted Philly’s best pizza in 2009, yeah like that’s the whole of Philly. There were only four of us, working all kinds of hours, 80 hours a week, 90 hours a week. Forget Risotto, I can make a fantastic sandwich. I was the youngest by a long way, 19 and they were all in their late 20’s and they kind of took me under their wing.
Q6. Why did you come back to Lancaster?
A. I just kind of got worn out; working all these hours and Philly itself is tough. One day I was sitting in my apartment and this guy knocks on the door. When we open it he has a gun and he is trying to break in. My roommate and I slam the door with his hand in it, and he fires off two shots before we get him out and I am saying, “what am I doing here”? The cops show up and they are accusing us of doing something, all I can say is “I’m from the country, this stuff doesn’t happen there, I’m from the country and this stuff doesn’t happen!”
Then a few weeks later I’m at work, late night, and one of the guys I am working with cracks a customer over the head with a Billy club, and splits him open. He’s a wise guy and has a record and can’t go down for it so the cops come in and lift me instead. Down to the cop station, leave me go and the guys in the shop are telling me, “you did good man, taken in and you kept your mouth shut”. I keep thinking to myself “I need to get out of here, this is crazy. I need to get out of here”.
My family had been pushing me to come back and take up a trade. That’s kind of what we did. So, I guess it just started to make sense. But I knew I would miss some of it, like bartending the mornings in Billy Murphy’s Irish Saloon and all the old-timers coming in. Like Little Johnny, would bring my sister the paper and then he would order a liver and onion sandwich off me, eat half and take home half. Or on Wednesdays he would order 3 wings.
So, in 2013 I came back to Denver. I was remodeling houses and driving to Philly every day. I got a job at the Inn at Leola Village and showed up and it was nothing like they explained to me so I quit and decided I’d had enough of the kitchen. I was going to get something on front of house. I headed into Annie Baileys to see if they were looking and I was walking by Tellus, which had just opened, and I said to hell with it I will try here, too. That was over 5 years ago and the rest is history as they say.
Eric Garman offered me a back of house job in Pour. “His loss” says Joe laughing.
Q7. Tell me how it felt coming back?
A. I felt I was good at the restaurant business. I always worked hard and I liked people and they usually liked me. I kind of thought it would happen like a movie or a book. Someone would come in and see me and offer me a better job and on and on.
While bartending, I had time to cook at home and I started cooking for my family, my friends, and myself. As I started to do this I also started to realize how lucky I was and how unique my upbringing was. I thought I’d never noticed but as I got older and started cooking more, I realized how much I remembered and how beautiful these memories are.
Every time I smell bread, Ambroso rolls, I feel like a kid. They used get delivered to my Uncle’s for Easter every year. I remember my first cheesesteak at my Uncle’s house in Coatsville. My two Uncles owned Deluigi Deli East and West Side. It was kind of what I grew up with.
Growing up we went to Reading more because it was closer. It was full of Italians. So, I am now in Lancaster and I assumed it would be the same, but there are no Italians. Where do I go for a sandwich? (a good sandwich), and the idea started percolating in my head. I can do this. I should do this.
Q8. Why cheesesteaks?
A. I love cheesesteaks, everything about them. I think what I love most is the build up, everything that leads up to the cheesesteak. It’s like you go to New York, you have the pizza, or you go to the ballpark you have a hotdog, and you build up to this. It is part of the whole experience. I remember going to the Electric Factory for a show, and you know you are going to end with a cheesesteak. It’s a ritual. it’s an experience. I love that experience.
Q9. What’s the best cheesesteak you have ever had?
A. Easy. It was Philip’s Steaks, my 19th birthday, and the guys I was working with all took me out to a strip club and then we went and got a cheese steak. But like I said it is everything that leads up to it; 19th birthday, first strip club, the guys all in there late 20’s and I am 19, they are trying to get me drunk and then that steak that I will never forget.
Q10. How’d it feel to own your own steak shop?
A. It feels so good, it’s like I told you I could do it. Last week a guy came in from DC and he told me he had come because he heard you got to get a cheese steak from Joe P’s, it feels good.
Q11. What’s next?
A. I want to open my own late night steak shop and bar. Steaks late night, 3 in the morning you want a steak, you get a steak. 5 in the morning, you want a steak, you get a steak. But not just a steak; an experience, and the best steak in town, and the best experience in town.
Q12. What would your last supper be?
A. Grandma’s holiday soup (our version of wedding soup), and chicken cutlets with spaghetti followed by playing cards with my Grandparents.
The memories are in the food and the smells. All my youth I never really understood this or felt it, but now I do. Whether it is the bread, the guy giving me a tough time through the window, passing that steak out and seeing the smile, or tasting my Mom’s sauce and recreating it.