J.P. Teti wanted a cheesesteak and couldn’t find one, so he made one.
Not impressed? Well, what if you knew that when Teti says he made a cheesesteak, he means he didn’t just go to the store and buy stuff to put a sandwich together? He made all of it from scratch. The sauce, the roll—short of raising his own beef, though not too far short— he built a near-perfect replica of a Philly cheesesteak in a place where no one even really knew the concept. And he did it at his own food truck, Liberty Cheesesteak. It was so successful, he turned it into a restaurant called Passayunk Avenue.
That’s not to say he didn’t have some help. There was an adventurous baker, an old friend with trunk space for vast amounts of cheese sauce jars, and that one shifty guy from Holland. But the compulsion to bring a hefty hunk of Philadelphia cuisine to London, England, was all Teti. As was the plan to open a Philly-themed restaurant across the pond.
Let’s answer the obvious question first: Why would a guy from Lawrence start a cheesesteak business in England? For starters, a restaurant based partly around cheese is not exactly unheard of in London. Although, to be fair, Teti’s cheesiness involves actual cheese, while that of other American-themed restaurants in the city revolves around campy pastiche kind of cheese. American-themed restaurants in England, Teti says, tend to look like something out of “Happy Days.”
More to the point, though, Teti opened his restaurant in London because after having lived there for the past 10 years or so, he got really irked one night out with his friends when he realized that his favorite big city, home for generations to his Italian ancestors, cradle of American democracy, and one of the most cuisine-rich places in the world, is never given any credit for being the cultural titan that it is.
“It’s always annoyed me that we’re a major city—we’re the only city in America that’s recognized as a UNESCO Heritage Site—but Philly’s lacking in consideration,” he says. “It’s a really unconsidered and unrecognized culture. We come from a very special part of the world. Philly is about food. Philly is about culture.”
Culture, particularly of the Italian food kind, is a big, big deal for Teti.
“Coming from an Italian family with roots in South Philly,” he says, “food is the axis of the family. When you’re not around that kind of food, you miss it quite easily.”
Did you catch it? The quite-English way Teti just described how big a jones he had for the food with which he grew up? A decade in London will have an effect like that. He also uses phrases like “a bit of” in place of “a little.”
But his inner-Italian, Jersey/Philly guy personality has remained otherwise unscarred. Teti will talk with electricity about the Flyers (they should have been a Stanley Cup perennial except they never had the elite goalies teams like the Devils and Red Wings had), and he’ll do it with a voice gone hoarse from screaming for the Eagles’ Super Bowl victory.
In fact, Teti was legitimately moments from buying a flight (on Air India) back to Philadelphia to attend the Eagles’ victory parade in early February. Moments away—at least, until his wife, Rebekah, reminded him that he had, you know, a wife, two small boys, and a business to run in London.
So to say Teti’s a passionate East Coast-type is by no means a stretch.
And when being away from the food he missed quite a bit married his resolve to do something about it, the result became a food truck originally named Liberty Cheesesteak (“London’s Only Real Philly Cheesesteak”) that became a restaurant named Passyunk Avenue (passyunk.co.uk). That restaurant is brimming over with foods that people who grow up and live their entire lives in a place like New Jersey often don’t realize is not so widely available outside the Northeast. Foods like soft pretzels, Italian hoagies, and meatball parms. That stuff just isn’t on the shelves in the U.K.
“We take it for granted that we can just go to the store,” he says of grabbing the ingredients for a cheesesteak. “What you don’t realize until you don’t have it anymore is that [Philadelphia] is one of the greatest food places in the world; the blending of ethnicities, the blending of cultures. We take for granted how diverse the area is.”
The Pat’s vs. Geno’s rivalry may be the Sixer’s/Celtics of the hot sandwich world, but that latter rivalry is actually part of Passyunk Avenue’s story.
If you’re the type to not know that cheesesteaks are indeed an Italian-American dish, rest assured, the various histories of cheesesteaks all talk about the roots of Philly’s most famous sandwich starting in the city, upon the inspiration of an Italian-American cook who first slapped some chopped beef on an Italian roll in the 1930s. The cheese sauce, known in the parlance as “whiz,” came maybe a decade later. But past that, the historical record gets a little competitive, as do the fans of Philadelphia’s two landmark cheesesteak shops, Pat’s and Geno’s.
The Pat’s vs. Geno’s rivalry may be the Sixer’s/Celtics of the hot sandwich world, but that latter rivalry is actually part of Passyunk Avenue’s story. In January, the NBA traveled to London for a game between the two Sixers and the Celtics, and they hired Teti’s food truck to cater the event.
So now let’s address the next obvious question: How did a guy with a craving for a cheesesteak in London actually make a food business out of an idea he had two years earlier? To answer, there’s the hidden obvious question of what Teti is doing in London to begin with. That part of Teti’s story starts at Providence College, where he went to to study political science (international and foreign policy). En route to his bachelor’s degree he spent a year at Cambridge University, studying abroad. He loved England enough to want to move back some day. He graduated from Providence in 2000. Teti’s parents, Gloria and Joe, co-owned Triangle Arts Center in Lawrence, and Gloria served as mayor of Lawrence and as a councilwoman.
About 15 years ago, he met Rebekah (“randomly”) in New York. She’s from Lebanon, Pennsylvania, which Teti calls “a very hilarious part of the world.” About 10 years ago, she had a chance to transfer to the U.K. for her job in commercial real estate. She is now the head of investor relations for a large property fund.
Meanwhile: “I am the Big Cheese and aspiring Cheesesteak King of Europe,” Teti says. “Since they dig royalty over here, I thought it would be helpful to describe our goals in these terms.”
At the time they moved, Teti worked “at a large, multinational American tech company” with an office in London, so he asked for a transfer. He was then in charge of coordinating with the company’s offices in the Middle East, which meant traveling. A lot. Two-to-three weeks a month, he would back and forth between the U.K. and Asia.
Unsurprisingly, he got tired of the traveling. Around 2014, he had his fateful craving and was on the brink of one of those classic career crossroads: either take the promotion or do something else. Two years later, Teti realized his cheesesteak tooth had never been sated and he decided it was time to follow an old wish of his, to have a food and hospitality business of his own. He figured if he was going to make a Philly cheesesteak, he was going to share it with his new home.
The trouble, you may recall, is that no such thing as a cheesesteak existed in London. Not even the ingredients. And that reality “sort of hit a nerve,” he says. So Teti set about finding a baker who’d bake him a real, Philly-style soft Italian roll. That took a lot of crooked looks and a few British translations of “Get outta here.” That’s more literal than you might think.
“I got booted out of bakery after bakery,” he says. But he found a guy willing to make him an authentic taste of home.
The same process happened with butchers. They’d gladly cut him some steak, but finding someone willing to cut it into sheets 2 or 3 millimeters thick? Absurd. Too much work for one guy with an idea. So getting a butcher took a while too. But he found a butcher who trades in grain-fed ribeye (because: marbling!), and now Teti also owns a commercial butchery in London’s South End.
Then, of course, there was the cheese sauce. The whiz. The first name in the very food he was working so hard to make a real version of. And whiz, of course, is not just cheese. It’s a cheese sauce. Kraft sells it as Cheez Whiz, and that would do. If Teti could find it.
“Whiz didn’t exist in the E.U.,” he says. “Well, it does, but not consistently.”
With the help of a friend from business school (Teti also has an MBA, which he got in 2011), he would visit the PX on the air base at Lakenheath, in Cambridge, the only place he could get his hands on Cheez Whiz aplenty. But the drive, and the fact that every time he left that PX he left with literally all the Cheez Whiz (and Tastykakes!), forced him into another direction.
Outside the market on the air base, finding anything that could be a ready-made whiz in Europe tended to require shopping at alternate outlets. Teti soon found a guy in Amsterdam, a “shifty intermediary” who provided him with Cheez Whiz in a kind of plugged-ears, la-la-la kind of arrangement. But that, too, proved an unsustainable way to get a good cheesesteak off the ground.
Four four months Teti and friends worked on making a whiz that, unlike its commercial parent, was easy to keep a supply of and made of actual cheese.
All this to satisfy a craving that turned into a drive that Teti swears Rebekah is 100 percent supportive of.
While he wanted to open his first venture in a landed kiosk in London, the bureaucracy, he says, was murder. So he invested in a food truck, which required far less paperwork, and proceeded to make Philly-area expats cry with the authentic flavors of home.
This year, the restaurant is up and running full, though Passyunk Avenue still has the truck for various events. The restaurant, of course, has a Philly sports vibe to it, but “it’s not a sports bar,” Teti says. It’s a place where people can eat and watch a game, Philly-style, but it’s not a sports bar.
“Its American Legion hall-meets- American bar with really great food,” he says. A little rough around the edges, which is a novelty in itself in the cosmopolitan, but ever-polite, city of London.
However you label it, Teti says Passyunk Avenue is a serious hit with locals, travelers, and Americans living in London. He’s planning to roll out three or four locations over the next few years.
“We’ve been a real breath of fresh air here,” he says. “We’ve been received so emotionally and so willingly by everybody.
“I knew we’d be a niche, but I think we could grow beyond just a niche.”