Underneath an orange Home Depot sign in a Long Island City parking lot, Rocco’s Italian Sausage and Cheesesteaks sits between the grills and plant boxes for sale. A sliver of a storefront, it tucks between the entrance and the exit doors on 5010 Northern Boulevard, near Woodside Avenue. Rocco’s has a 10-seat counter and windows steamy from the flattop grill full of cheesesteaks, but you still might miss it, though you shouldn’t: It’s perhaps one of the city’s more exciting sandwich destinations — known primarily to neighbors and regulars at the big-box home improvement store.
Once inside, customers inspect a paper menu and peer into the open kitchen as an employee oversees rows of sausages that tighten and curl from heat. Sports team logos are drawn on the glass while articles about the place stud the white-tile walls. The smells are intoxicating.
Rocco’s is founded and run by Rocco Guardino, a native New Yorker who grew up on the border of Bushwick and Ridgewood. Always self-employed, he worked at a newsstand in high school and then bought it a few years later. From there, what began as a simple Italian steak sandwich operation — “You know, just cheese and mozz,” he says — has grown into a multi-store cheesesteak chain in New York and Philadelphia.
All Rocco’s are adjacent to Home Depot locations. The first Rocco’s started in Secaucus in 1992, at a Home Depot near the Meadowlands. “Home Depot loved the concept,” he says. “Both contractors and football fans from the stadium were coming to get sandwiches.” It’s a match that’s still working 30 years later. “We like people to come in and feel at home,” he says.
The LIC location, open since 2000, serves over 250 people daily. They’ve just added a second NYC location in College Point at 131-35 Avery Avenue, near College Point Boulevard, where you can find Rocco most days.
While Rocco’s specializes in cheesesteaks, he says the bestseller is actually the sweet Italian sausage, which they butterfly and serve with egg and cheese on a roll for breakfast. The vegetable portobello option leaves vegan friends with no excuses, and all items on the menu are under $18.
It’s a seamless, three-person operation: The lead guy on the grill is all smiles behind the smoky glass, manning the cramped space. To his left, another employee waves in new orders. A contractor who seems to be a regular asks the third employee, the cashier, about their kids. A soccer mom orders six small cheesesteaks to go, all with the recommended provolone. Next, a first-timer is handed a piping hot taste of the sweet sausage. “What is that? Fennel?” he asks. “I’ll take one of each.”
The move is to get two small cheesesteaks and share a sausage for the “table” or, realistically, the console of your car. Rocco cuts steak thin, rendering it savory and tender. There’s just the right ratio of fixings that sit on top of a seedless Italian bread hero soft enough to absorb the juices but also strong enough to remain intact. For pairing, add the dark fruits of Diet Dr. Pepper or Cherry Coke to the mix and a bag of Original Lay’s to scoop up the juicy bits that invariably fall off the sandwich. Don’t forget the homemade hot sauce that lands tangy on the tongue and brightens up each bite.
When asked about the peppers they use, the staffer who handles the phone orders says, “Top secret. They don’t even tell me.”
Some Philly traditionalists would say that cheesesteaks must have Cheez Whiz. But Rocco’s — which currently has five locations in Philly all run by Rocco’s nephew, Dan — has managed to escape this dairy divisiveness. You won’t find Cheez Whiz as an option at any location. Isn’t it sacrilege not to put Whiz on a cheesesteak? “Oh no, no,” says Rocco. “We do white American cheese. It is just creamier and cleaner, not as overpowering.” And with small, medium, and large offerings throughout the menu, trying new things is easy.
“It’s always a special outing for us,” says Anna Falcovich, who frequents Rocco’s with her vegetarian boyfriend. They likely joined others one visit or another at the communal green picnic table in the lot underneath the Manhattan skyline, accompanied by the sounds of shopping carts and Queens traffic. While waiting for their sandwiches as the sun sets she whispers, “Rocco’s is like our little secret.”
Diana Arnold is a local writer and performer who has also been a server at New York's best restaurants. Her debut book, If/When, is available now from Kelsay Books, and her short film about waitressing, On The Table, is currently streaming on Indieflix.