Customers line up to order at the window at Dalessandro's Steaks in Roxborough, which used to have the option to sit down inside. (River Ryan-Endicott)

💡 Get Philly smart 💡
with BP’s free daily newsletter

Read the news of the day in less than 10 minutes — not that we’re counting.

Once upon a time, the trick to getting quick service at two of the most esteemed and busiest sandwich destinations in the city was simply to push your way to the counter. 

At Dalessandro’s Steaks and Hoagies in Roxborough and DiNic’s Roast Pork in the Reading Terminal Market, lines are once again as long as they were before the pandemic. But at both establishments, counter service is currently not an option. Guests are kept out of Dalessandro’s entirely; the low-slung formica in front of the beer fridges sitting idle. The counters remain at DiNic’s, but the stools are gone. 

“Aesthetically, the store doesn’t look right,” said DiNic’s Joey Nicolosi, the third-generation manager of the sandwich shop known for roast beef, meatballs and Italian sausage sandwiches as well as its namesake roast pork. 

Despite that, Nicolosi has decided against bringing counter service back. It’s a victim of COVID and as well as the particular dynamics of the economic recovery.

When DiNic’s reopened after a three-month closure in June 2020, sales remained a fraction of pre-pandemic levels. Nicolosi couldn’t afford the staff needed for counter service, he said. 

When business started picking up, he initially brought back the stools. Guests were allowed to stay and eat at the counter, but only after they’d waited in line and purchased their sandwiches along with to-go orders. The “hybrid” solution didn’t quite work; it was confusing for customers and staff. 

“The long and short of it is this,” Nicolosi said, explaining that he’s trying to keep prices down, but inflation and the labor market aren’t making it easy. “It’s not as bad as last year, but it’s highly difficult to find employees. If we wanted to bring [counter service] back, sandwiches would be even more expensive.”

Now the shop functions with seven employees rather than 25, and everything moves quicker doing take-out only. Nicolosi is also planning a minor renovation to suit the new operation. 

DiNic’s in 2016, with counter seating in full swing behind a line of take-out customers. (Danya Henninger/Billy Penn) Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

“There is something that you miss. It’s comforting and inviting,” he said about having guests seated at the counter. “But we have to pick our poison here. It’s going to be sandwiches that are affordable, and streamlined service.”

Nicolosi remains open to changing his mind. “I’m not dogmatic about this,” he said. “If I feel it makes sense, I’ll be willing to do it.”

Nearly seven miles to the northwest, Dalessandro’s owner Steve Kotridis said he does eventually intend to reopen the doors to his shop, where patrons now continue to order and pick up through windows installed in 2020. But, speaking just a day before the World Health Organization declared COVID no longer a public health emergency, he said that dining at the counter remains on “pause.”

“I need to see people stop getting sick,” Kotridis said. His cousin, also a restaurateur, has come down with COVID twice in the last few months. 

“Luckily we haven’t had that” among Dalessandro’s staff, he said, crediting it to the policy of keeping the doors closed. “It’s a pretty tight space in here.”

Does it have an effect on the bottom line? With no sit-down option, beer sales have dropped 80%, though Kotridis attributes that to the increasing number of grocery stores that now sell bottles, like the nearby Acme.

Just across Henry Avenue, Chubby’s Steaks offers a sit-down option with a full bar. A few blocks away at Barry’s Steaks and Hoagies, you can grab a seat at the counter and a house-made soda to go along. 

George’s Sandwich Shop in the Italian Market still maintains counter service. (Dan Packel for Billy Penn)

One of the best old-school counters in the city is found at George’s Sandwich Shop in the Italian Market. It has eight stools, and not a menu in sight. (The list is posted on the outside, for people ordering via the window out to 9th Street.)

The server at the no-frills operation can recite the options, but there’s one classic it’s hard to find elsewhere: tripe, with long hots.

“For here, I’m assuming,” she said upon hearing the order. A minute later she pushed the sandwich, half wrapped in foil, and with a plastic fork to help with the mess, across the counter. A perfect Philadelphia lunch.