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From the

September 13, 2011

Off the Eatin' Path
By Zachary Barowitz

photo/Zachary Barowitz

Unreal Italians

The Italian is a quaint sandwich. The bread is mushy; the olives come out of a can; the “specially-blended oil” is dubious. Even the name is marvelously non-P.C.; we don’t, after all, refer to tacos as “Mexicans”, or to knishes as “Jews”i. To Portlanders, however, the Italian is our sandwich, and as such it compares quite well to other regional sandwiches like the Philadelphia Hoagie or the New Orleans Po’ Boy.

For those of you who are newcomers, or who have had your face buried in a pile of poutine de foie gras for the past two years, the Italian was born of an immigrant named Giovanni Amato on the Portland waterfront in 1902 (it is a little-known fact that men bear sandwiches)ii. It is a style of submarine sandwich that features copious fresh vegetables (including tomatoes, onions, green peppers – but not lettuce), dill pickles, and a liberal dousing of oil. Cheese and cold cuts are slight; choice varies, but ham-&-cheese is standard. All-veggie is popular too.

The Italian is the only genre of sandwich that may fairly be described as “refreshing”. Unlike with other sandwiches, sogginess is considered a virtue in the case of Italians, although the degree of sogginess is a matter of taste. The spongy bread soaks up the oil and the liquid from the tomatoes, peppers, and pickles. Some people eat their Italian fresh, while the bread is still dry; others wait fifteen minutes (long enough to take it back to work) as the juices begin to soak in; still others buy their Italian on their way to work in the morning so that by lunchtime it has been completely soaked through and recast in a new image, the deli-paper wrapping acting as a mould.

Just as the bánh mì comes from a fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisinesiii, the Italian of today has a lot of Yankee presence. It is essentially a ham-and-cheese on white, with the addition of a few other ingredients that would have been considered exotic in the 1950s. The “specially-blended” oil, for example (presumably olive oil and something cheaper); and it was only fairly recently that some shops started using kalamata olives in favor of pre-sliced canned black olives.iv

While there is nothing wrong with the ingredients that Amato’s, Di Pietro’s, Anania’s, and other sandwich shops use – the junky-goodness is a part of the appeal – the sandwich can stand a bit of gentrification. A reformed Italian (like a reformed Quaker) can stand as an attempt to recreate the original sandwich developed by an Italian immigrant at the turn of the last century. This will involve some careful acquisitioning from local purveyors; once procured, it is best to array all the ingredients – meats, cheeses, olives, and veggies – on a platter and let diners assemble their own sandwiches.

The Bread: Standard Baking Company

Amato’s bakery is still operated by the Amato family but we recommend something with a crust.v A traditional baguette (the signature loaf from Standard Baking Company) will give your sandwich character and texture.

Veggies: The Farmer’s Market

There is a Yugoslavian saying that goes “The tomatoes are best when the Gypsies are throwing them at each other.” September is the best time of year for Farmer’s market veggies, especially tomatoesvi; late yields and fewer seasonal residents make the offerings cheap, juicy, and plentiful. Preferred sandwich tomato varieties include beefsteak, brandywine, and champion, but any non-sauce, non-cherry, or non-drying tomato will do. Cut the tomatoes into thin wedges and shim them into the assembled sandwich. Raw green bell peppers are not easily digestible so you might consider experimenting with other varieties; you also might wish to include the long green Italian hot peppers, peperoncinosvii. Scallions impart a fresher taste than traditional yellow onions, although soaking the diced onion in vinegar brine imparts a bright juiciness.

Cold Cuts, Olives, Cheese, and Olive Oil: Micucci’s

Amato’s makes an Italian with Italian cold cuts, which is good but seems more Sysco than Sissa (home of the Sapori del Maiale – “The flavors of the Pig” – Festivalviii). Miccuci’s doesn’t make sandwiches, but it is a favorite source for Italian and Mediterranean foods. Capricola, sopressatta, mortadella – all are good choices for meat, but avoid prosciutto (goyishe lox), as its leathery chewiness works better paired with melon than incorporated into a sandwich.

The cheese should have a presence but not be overpowering; an Asiago, a slightly piccante Provolone, commercial smoked mozzarella, or deli-sliced smoked Gouda strike a good balance. You might also include shaved Parmesan with a blander cheese like a provolone dulce.ix

Amato’s uses purple brine-cured kalamata olives which remain a good choice. Other black olives to try include the dry salt-cured wrinkly and oily gaeta, which is flavored with herbs, and the salty lugano. Micucci’s also sells canned Roland-brand anchovy-stuffed green olives that offer little juicy blasts of umami but are not fishy.x

As far as olive oil goes, there are aficionados who treat specialty oils like wine, complete with flavor notes and other jargon. For my money I prefer the more robust Spanish and Turkish oils to the Italian ones. Some years ago, Consumer Reports named Goya the best tasting oil, largely for its bold flavor. Roland has a cheap, decent unfiltered oil (unfiltered oil is best for salads, not for cooking) and Zoe is a good and inexpensive Spanish oil.

Pickles: Medeo

Is it worth a trip to Westbrook for some pickles? Yes. Medeo’s half-sour pickle (fermented in brine, not cured in vinegar) are fresh-tasting and crunchy. However, the sandwich-shop dill pickle adds welcome acidity. If you use a half-sour, sprinkle on some lemon juice or red wine vinegar (Amato’s adds vinegar by request) to retain the necessary zest. Of course, “pickles” refers to more than just cucumbers and any of the Italian pickled peppers (available at Micucci’s) would be more that suitable.

But in order to truly gentrify the humble Italian sandwich, it needs to be rebranded with a new name. The “Gio”, perhaps, in honor of its inventor; or you could just call it a tramezzinoxixi.

i Frankfurters and hamburgers non-withstanding.
ii This according to the Amato’s website.
iii Bánh mì (literally a “wheat biscuit”) used to be referred to as a “Vietnamese Sandwich,” but its popularity has normalized the foreign term.
iv The Amato’s website credits the current owner, Dominic Reali, who bought the business in 1972, with introducing “Greek olives, a zestier pickle, and his own specially blended oil,” although it doesn’t specify when each contribution was made. The author’s personal recollection is that Amato’s was still using canned black olives ten years ago.
v Unlike the Italian sandwich rolls, which are stored in plastic bags to keep them soft, a traditional baguette or Italian loaf should be stored in its paper bag. Putting bread in a plastic bag will cause the crust to soften and lose its flakiness, while turning the crumb from airy to chewy. Don’t worry about the bread going stale; there is plenty of sandwich juice to be absorbed.
vi Tomatoes, as we all know, are considered to be berries.
vii Generally the smaller the pepper the hotter, and the pith (i.e., the stem-end) is always hotter than the flesh (e.g., the tip). The hottest peppers – Naga Viper pepper, Infinity Chilli, Bhut Jolokia chili pepper, Dorset Naga, Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper – rate 150 times hotter than the jalapeño; but the usual test, called the Scoville scale, is too subjective a measurement to be meaningful. High-performance liquid chromatography is a better test but still imprecise. For those curious about the intensity of these peppers check YouTube.
viii November 5th & 6th
ix The author left the Kalamata olives and Asiago cheese at work on the day of the test sandwich, so these items were approximated by using what was on hand: green olives and Munster cheese.
x Green olives are simply unripe black olives and as such need to be soaked in lye to break down the proteins before curing. Other foods prepared with lye include Mexican and Central American tamales and tortillas, Swedish lutefisk, and Chinese “one-hundred year” eggs.
xi The Italian word for sandwich.