Review: It's always Sonny at this old-school slice of Philadelphia

 

★★★

Since 1958, the Nigro family has been baking fresh bread, simmering red sauce and cranking out cheese steaks and other subs from a small storefront in Hollywood. You step into Sonny’s Famous Steak Hogies — hoagies is misspelled deliberately — and you feel like you’re entering a time warp, a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting. There’s a small counter, a grill with sizzling shaved rib eye, booths with wooden tables and friendly waitresses. This is a bygone, no-frills world where the only things plastic are bowls and utensils — it’s cash only, no credit cards.

Not that you’ll need much green to leave well fed. The basic steak sub with onions and tomato sauce is $6.90. Cheese — American, provolone, mozzarella or cheddar sauce – will set you back an extra 50 cents. A can of cold Budweiser is $3.65. A salad covered in a white blizzard of finely ground Gorgonzola and drenched in piquant house made Italian vinaigrette is $3.95. If you ask, they’ll bring you a small dish of sliced hot cherry peppers at no charge.

Don’t expect formality here, just honest value and good food. If you want the latest craft beer, frou-frou toppings or trendy gastropub decor, this ain’t your place. The surroundings are slightly worn. The salads have homely iceberg lettuce. The only desserts, as spelled out on lettering boards above the grill, are packaged Tastykake chocolate cupcakes or kandy kakes (95 cents).

The steak subs remain as solid as ever, but the thing I didn’t realize until my most recent visits were how good the other sandwiches were, particularly the crisp and succulent chicken Parmesan ($7.10), and a juicy, beefy cheeseburger sub ($6.40). After 4:30 p.m., there is adequate pasta with meatballs or sausage, and puffy, doughy pizza that’s not my style. But, oh, those subs. The steak sub that’s drizzled with a little butter on the grill and sauteed with onions and mushrooms is still delicious, but getting harder on my aging plumbing.

So let me sing the praises of the chicken, which almost got me to burst out in full Peyton Manning-Nationwide commercial warble, “Chicken parm you taste so good.” A reader told me to try it. It was perfection. Not too big and not too small, it was covered in melted mozzarella, sprinkled with grated Parmesan and bathed in a house tomato sauce that is simmered with carrots, onions and celery and then strained. In a phone interview after my visits, owner John Nigro told me the fresh chicken breasts are cut and breaded daily. Mine came out golden, not greasy.

And then there’s the cheeseburger sub, made with lean ground beef with 12 percent fat. I’m not usually a fan of griddled burgers, but this was outstanding, exterior crunch and interior juice melding into a meat flavor bomb, topped with slices of white American cheese, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle.

The soft and pillowy foundation to all the subs at Sonny’s are the house made hoagie rolls. Nigro and crew bake 480 to 720 daily. They are light enough to devour, yet hefty enough to absorb the steak juices and support all the fixings. If you get to Sonny’s later in the day, the rolls might veer toward the first shades of staleness, but they’re still mighty fine.

Bread has been the lifeblood of the Nigro family going back to the early 20th century in Philadelphia, where Samuel “Sonny” Nigro worked at his father’s bakery. Sonny, who spent a few years at the University of Miami, moved to South Florida with his growing family in the 1950s. With $500, he decided to open a restaurant on the western edge of Broward County. “There were cow pastures across the street,” said John Nigro, 63, who began working for his father as a dishwasher at 15, while a student at Chaminade-Madonna High. John Nigro became a partner in 1983 and took over in 2000, three years before his father’s death.

Sonny Nigro served full Italian dinners in the 1960s, but eventually whittled the menu to subs, salads, a few pasta dishes and pizza. The large cheese ravioli comes from nearby Mimi’s Ravioli. The sausage is from nearby Gino’s Italian American Meat Market. There are 46 seats in the dining room, and takeout business is brisk all day.

Sonny Nigro came up with the quirky spelling of “hogie,” and a numerical shorthand for steak subs that remains. A “50” is a steak sub with sauce and onions (5 looks like an S for sauce, 0 is for onions.) A “9” is a plain steak sub, because 9 looks like a backwards “P.” “My dad was unique,” John says. “He liked to do things just to get people talking.”

If you don’t order by number at Sonny’s, no sweat. The cashiers or waitresses will nod and take your order without correcting your lingo. This isn’t Starbucks. In a corporate, homogenized world, Sonny’s remains unique. They’re into the fourth generation of family. John’s wife, his 38-year-old daughter and 17-year-old grandson work here. His general manager, Brian Harrison, has been here 30 years, and some servers nearly as long. He treats staff well, with paid vacations and profit sharing. He has turned down opportunities for expansion and franchising. John still shows up for work nearly every day, putting in long hours kneading dough and molding meatballs. He has seen friends grow up and have kids and grandkids, sends free catering platters to families after funerals of longtime customers.

Last decade, Guy Fieri spotlighted the restaurant on an episode of Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives.” “He’s come back a couple of times since the show aired,” John Nigro says. “He even brought his wife.”

Nigro seems like my kind of guy. He likes going to old-school, family-run places such as Tropical Acres Steakhouse in Dania Beach. Sonny’s hasn’t been formally reviewed by this publication in 35 years, but John says he still has a plaque with the reprint at home. When I ask a perennial Philly cheese steak question, “Pat’s or Geno’s,” he gave the answer that warmed a critic’s heart: “Neither … they’re both terrible.” His favorite Philly sandwich: roast pork with provolone and broccoli rabe from Tony Luke’s or Nick’s. It would be something if he could add his own version to Sonny’s menu. But he is hesitant to change anything, including prices.

“My accountant keeps telling me to add a quarter here and there, but I don’t want to hurt my customers,” John Nigro says. “I’ve been so blessed. The thing that drives me to come to work every day is I’m passionate every day.”

The proof keeps coming with his hoagies. In a transient region that thrives on hollow trendiness, Sonny’s has endured.

mmayo@southflorida.com, 954-356-4508. Follow my food adventures on Instagram: @mikemayoeats. Sign up for my weekly dining newsletter at SouthFlorida.com/EatBeatMail.

SONNY’S FAMOUS STEAK HOGIES

1857 N. 66th Ave., Hollywood

954-989-0561, or SonnysFamousSteakHogies.com

Cuisine: Hot and cold subs, salads, with pasta and pizza at dinner

Cost: Inexpensive. Subs $6 to $9, salads $3 to $6, pastas $10 to 11, pizza $10 with toppings extra.

Hours: 11:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily (until 8:30 p.m. Sunday)

Credit cards: Cash only

Reservations: No

Beer: Budweiser or Michelob Ultra $3.65, no wine

Handicapped access: Ground level

Parking: Free lot

 

 

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