Just about anyone raised in or around New York City – and who loves eating – can tell you about Italian sandwiches. Not long ago, when we raised the subject with some of our dining buddies, in person and online, we were overwhelmed with recommendations. Our list of a few favorite sandwich shops quickly grew to more than two dozen that, we were told, we really ought to try.
To be sure, this crowd understood that by “Italian,” we didn’t mean sandwiches native to Italy itself – not panuozzi, not schiacciate, not even panini. We were thinking instead of their hefty, even humungous U.S. descendants, the sort that are served on a long, flat wheat-flour roll, typically one with a chewy crumb and a crisp crust.
In Queens and throughout New York City, this type of sandwich is usually called a “hero,” sometimes a sub (as in submarine, named after the shape). Elsewhere in the United States, it might be called a hoagie, a grinder, a torpedo or – in the Connecticut suburbs of New York – a wedge.
In brief, we’re talking big sandwiches, the sort that might be shared with a friend or eaten half now, half later. Almost universally, these sandwiches have already been sliced in two when handed over, almost as if the counterman or -woman is offering dietary advice.
To keep our roundup within some reasonable boundaries, we decided to focus on one particular style of cold sandwich, for which, generally, only the bread and the condiments don’t come from the cooler. (Hot sandwiches, featuring meatballs, grilled chicken or anything parmesan, will have to wait their turn for another roundup.) At each shop we ordered a hero with a variety of cold cuts – capicola, soppressata, mortadella and the like – that might also include cheese, mushrooms, peppers and, perhaps, some sort of dressing.
None of these were bespoke sandwiches, and we made no attempt to customize a hero at any one shop to mimic the hero at another. Instead, we ordered a preconfigured combo from each menu and allowed each shop to prepare a sandwich that it does well. Even the names of the sandwiches are different, reflecting the difficulty of direct comparisons.
We’re still exploring and eating, but here are five sandwiches, and five sandwich shops, that we’ve enjoyed so far.
By the time we arrived at Benateri’s Italian Gourmet Deli, about 11:15 on a weekday, the lunch rush was already well under way, and a dozen or so staff members were busy at work behind the counter. Few customers were on hand in the narrow dining area, however. Much of Beneteri’s business evidently consists of large outgoing orders for worksites and businesses in College Point, a neighborhood northeast of LaGuardia Airport. Once we caught the eye of a counterman, very shortly we carried off our hero to a picnic table at a nearby park. The “Supremo” was generously provisioned with sweet soppressata, pepperoni, prosciutto and provolone, garnished with roasted pepper, lettuce and tomato. The winning touch, soaked into the crook of the crusty roll: garlic dressing.
Tony’s Beechhurst Deli sits quietly in the farthest reaches of northeast Queens. Via two well-trafficked bridges, it’s a faster drive from Tony’s to The Bronx than to Flushing’s Chinatown. But once we’d stepped through the door of this family-run shop, where the father makes his own mozzarella, the mother cooks the day’s hot specials and the sons often assemble the sandwiches, we were in no rush to head anywhere else. The adjoining lunchroom makes it easy to settle in with a sandwich and soda, or perhaps a cappuccino.
We certainly had the counterman’s full, unhurried attention. As he assembled our “Tony’s Special” – soppressata, mortadella, pepperoni and provolone, plus roasted pepper, lettuce and tomato, salt and pepper, oil and vinegar – he turned back over his shoulder to ask how we wanted our roasted peppers: Sweet? Hot? (Spicy-hot, that is. We went half-and-half.) The soft semolina roll wasn’t packed snugly; lettuce, tomato and especially sliced meats hung invitingly outside one long edge. It was an invitation immediately accepted.
Leo’s Latticini, also well-known as Mama’s of Corona, was founded in the 1930s by the grandparents of the three sisters who run the shop today, who still talk of a time when the neighborhood was largely Italian-American. It’s a shrine for fans of the New York Mets, the baseball team who play in nearby Citi Field. Signed photos of athletes – as well as actors and politicians – look down on the low counter where sandwiches are prepared.
In the “Mama’s Special,” prosciuttini, salami and fresh mozzarella are piled high, while hot and sweet peppers, mushrooms, and oil and vinegar are added with near-abandon. Mama’s doesn’t run on an assembly line, and you may not receive the exact same sandwich each time. Invariably, though, this is a big, moist, messy sandwich. We’re glad for the options to sit down next door, either near the the tempting pastry case of Mama’s Backyard Cafe, or a short walk away near the local bocce court, within eyeshot of The Lemon Ice King of Corona.
Stacked Sandwich Shop, in Forest Hills, is by far the youngest business in our roundup. When the husband-and-wife owners of a nearby pub couldn’t keep their doors open during Covid, their turned their attention to a business better suited to grab-and-go. (By and large, sandwich shops like those in our roundup, whether they offer delivery or only takeout, have fared better under the pandemic than sit-down restaurants.) Stacked’s graffiti-tag logo also has a less traditional, more improvisational feel than the signage at these other shops.
The heritage of the “Muffuletta” we order, by contrast, reaches back more than a century, when the sandwich first fed Italian immigrants in New Orleans. In the Big Easy, a muffuletta is served on a large, round sesame-seeded loaf and can satisfy the appetite of a dockworker; in Forest Hills, the crusty, seeded bread has the oblong configuration of a typical hero but is just as belly-filling as the original. Ours was packed with salami, capicola, mortadella, provolone, mozzarella, olive salad, lettuce, tomato, onion and mayo. If we could quibble, we’d hold the mayo and double up on the essential olive salad.
Whichever way we turned amid the crowded shelves of Sorriso Italian Salumeria in Astoria, we faced an almost overwhelming display of specialty foods, many of them imported from the old country. Our eventual destination, the prepared-food counter, was even more bewildering: Multiple sandwich menus, both hand-lettered and professionally printed, featured imaginative combos often named for figures of popular culture.
We needed several minutes and a good-natured prompt from the counterman – “Still deciding?” – to settle on the “Godfather.” This sandwich name has lots of currency in the northeastern United States, although the ingredients vary widely. At Sorriso, it includes ham cappy, salami, pepperoni, mortadella, provolone, hot or sweet roasted peppers – “Half and half?”, the counterman guided us – plus oil and vinegar.
After we carried off our hero, and after a brief inspection of the excellent pastry selection at Gian Piero Bakery, across the way, we found a place to spread out nearby at an out-of-service “streetery” – one of the ad hoc dining areas that allowed New York restaurants to serve customers outdoors during the pandemic, when indoor dining was prohibited. That’s where we learned that the Godfather could literally stop traffic. As we posed ours for a photo, a car pulled up alongside, and a fellow leaned out the window to ask where we’d bought it. We pointed back up the street, and his car made a U-turn in that direction. Evidently, this was a sandwich he couldn’t refuse.
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