Credit: Mónica Marie Zorrilla / Billy Penn

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Surprising as it may seem, some of the best sausage sandwiches in Philly hail from a tiny stand outside Home Depot.

The shack, which goes by the name Rocco’s Italian Sausages and Philly Cheese Steaks, has been called essential, landed on “best of” lists and deemed a “hidden gem.”

Despite the many accolades, there’s almost no info out there about who owns the multiple outposts of Rocco’s — or who came up with the idea of putting a grill outside Philadelphia home improvement stores in the first place. After several months of reporting and research (no joke), Billy Penn has the answer.

Turns out we have a New Yorker to thank.

Pretzels → hot dogs → sausages

Rocco’s founder Rocco Guardino is an NYC native with a thick Queens accent.

He’s been hustling since he was in the fourth grade, when he made his first foray into the food industry selling pretzels near a bus station by the 59th Street Bridge.

Guardino’s dad was a bus driver, and in 1979 the union went on strike. During the 13 weeks that drivers were striking, Guardino would purchase $20 in pretzels every day and take them over to the picket lines. At the end of the day, he’d wind up with $70 to take back home.

“I always tell everyone that this was my start,” he said with a chuckle. “I would pocket the extra $50 and start the day selling pretzels all over again with the left over $20. All of my friends from grammar school still know me as the kid that was always trying to pitch something, make a buck somewhere.”

Guardino eventually graduated from pretzels.

In the ’90s, he became director of operations for a Virginia outpost of a hot dog-centric franchise called Dominic’s of New York, which was owned by his brother-in-law, John Felico. Dominic’s had a contract with Home Depot and Lowe’s to sell frankfurters there, something Guardino was involved in setting up.

Thanks in part to that relationship, business at Dominic’s was good. But Guardino soon got “bored as hell” in Virginia. He decided to relocate back to New York.

Thinking about what business he could open in his hometown, he realized a menu of hot dogs wasn’t necessarily the best offering for many Home Depot regulars. Construction contractors often have only a short amount of time to snag one meal that needs to sustain them throughout 12 hours of manual labor.

“Listen, these guys… They want to eat heartily,” Guardino explained. “After busting their asses all day, or getting ready to bust their asses, they can’t only have a pretzel or a hot dog. They need something that fills them up.”

With that in mind, Guardino seized the opportunity to try it out at the Home Depot on Northern Boulevard in Long Island City, after managers whom he had worked closely with at Dominic’s let him know space was available. By 2001, Rocco’s Italian Sausages and Philly Cheese Steaks was open for business inside the store, where patrons could be “protected from the elements of a harsh New York winter.”

How’d cheesesteaks make the menu? Because they’re the perfect quick-serve meal.

“Everyone knows a Philly cheesesteak,” Guardino explained, citing the fact that they’re filling, simple and versatile. “They’re comfortable with the onions, steak and cheese combo.”

Oh, hey there Danny DeVito! The ’Always Sunny’ actor stopped by the Rocco’s in NYC. Credit: Courtesy Rocco Guardino

Bringing the deliciousness to Philly

Guardino didn’t need to invest in marketing or advertising. Word of mouth led to his sandwich stand becoming locally famous in Queens — which led to friends and former coworkers looking to get in on some of the sausage-slinging action.

One of these former colleagues was Guardino’s pal Daniel Winter.

Winter, after not seeing eye-to-eye with certain commercial practices at Dominic’s, came to Philadelphia in 2006 with “nothing but a suitcase, my wife and kids, and $2,000 to my name.”

“I know it sounds cheesy,” Winter told Billy Penn, “but I swear its true. We lived in the Red Roof Inn by the airport for months. I had to get a job to sustain us, and once I saw two opportunities for food stands outside of Home Depots down here — one on Castor Ave. and the other on Delaware Ave. — I had to call Rocco.”

Guardino trusted Winter to bring his brand to Philly because he’d personally “groomed” him at Dominic’s, he said, describing his bud as “a trustworthy guy with business savvy.”

On April 1, 2006, the first Philadelphia outposts of Rocco’s opened for business outside of Home Depots on Columbus Boulevard and on Castor Avenue. They were a near-instant success, and Winter soon received “hundreds” of requests from people who wanted to get a piece of the savory profit.

But Winter resisted the temptation to grow too quickly.

“It is all about protecting the brand, about making sure that everything is good,” he said. “Quality over quantity. We’ve kept it smaller, and all of our shops are solid. Some people try to grow too fast. It is so easy to get greedy in this game.”

He did greenlight a couple of expansions, however. In 2011, he opened the Rocco’s on Roosevelt Boulevard. In order to maintain the brand’s integrity, Winter began delegating tasks to his most reliable business partners: his sons.

Anthony Winter started doing paperwork for Rocco’s when he was 10 and began working full-time at the South Philly location by the time he was 16. At 27, he now owns the Castor Avenue store, and is planning on opening another location in Springfield. Anthony’s younger brother, Daniel, is currently running the location on Roosevelt Boulevard and “will be going into ownership soon,” their father confirmed.

The Oregon Avenue outpost is owned by someone outside the family: Bill Visco.

Visco was one of the food distributors for Winter’s other three locations. When he began to inquire about the possibility of coming on board, his 15 years of experience in retail and his dedication to the product convinced Winter and Guardino that he was legit.

In 2013, Visco officially joined the team, and the guys have been “like friends and family” ever since.

Creating community via sausage

Visco believes one of the reasons the three owners work well together is their willingness to get into the thick of things, and not be afraid to roll up their sleeves and dive into the work.

“If anything goes wrong,” Visco said, “we’re there to step it up. As an owner, you’re responsible for everything. If we’re short-handed one day, don’t you worry: I’m there sweeping and picking up the trash.”

Though the hours are long, the positive reviews and customers coming back after their meal to give their “compliments to the chef,” is what makes it all worthwhile. One of the Winters’ favorite parts about owning food stands right outside of a Home Depot is that they’ve created common ground for people from all walks of life.

“I truly believe that Home Depot… there’s just no better place to network in the entire world,” the elder Winter said. “Everyone needs to get a lightbulb at some point. From sports figures to the district attorney, to anyone on the spectrum. You’re bound to run into anybody and strike up a conversation.”

All Rocco’s locations have the same core menu, but not all have the same specialty or seasonal sandwiches — nor do they have the same customer favorites. At the Oregon Ave. location, for example, Visco attests that while the hot sausage and sweet Italian sausage do reign supreme, there are some days where cheesesteaks not only sell out, they’re also the only thing ordered all day.

(It appears that Dominic’s of New York has since expanded its menu to include sausages and cheesesteaks. Hmm.)

Per Guardino, at the location in Queens, “everyone goes wild for the sausage, egg and cheese breakfast sandwiches. They just want to start their day with something that’ll fill ’em up for all of the work they’ve got ahead of them. I just want them to have a smile from ear to ear, even if it’s like, 6 a.m. I want them to enjoy the experience.”

Winter’s favorite item of the three Rocco’s he oversees is the specialty sandwich at the Columbus Blvd. location: Italian chicken sausage with roasted garlic and pepper.

All Philly Rocco’s stands are open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and each has different hours on Sundays.