This summer I visited three cities to find the best eight Italian sandwiches. Though I noshed on only half a sandwich in each case, I still ate way more in New York, Philadelphia and Atlantic City than I should have, which means more laps in the pool each morning. But the journey did allow me to relive my past.
I bit into my first Italian sandwich in Atlantic City in the summer of 1966, when I was 9 years old. My dad's sister and her husband lived in a house along the beach in nearby Margate, N.J., and we visited a couple of times each July and August. Whenever we turned up, my uncle looked for any excuse to get out of the house to let my father catch up with his sister. That excuse often was coaxing my younger brother and me into his canary yellow Cadillac. Once inside, my uncle took us on a junk-food crawl that included the best pizza, sundaes, hot dogs and candy in town—you name it. The guy knew all the swell places.
Our first stop was always the White House submarine shop on Arctic Ave. The smell of those sandwiches brings back memories of the '60s—when Atlantic City was a more quaint resort town with a wooden boardwalk, saltwater taffy shops and arcade games.
Now that I've established my sandwich bona fides, let me tell you what goes into an Italian sandwich. While the core ingredients are fairly consistent, there's plenty of room for improvisation (so technically, this is a jazz post). After the salami, ham, mortadella and prosciutto and mozzarella or provolone are folded in, next comes the art: shredded lettuce, tomato and a range of fixin's like onions, hot peppers, marinated mushrooms and oil and vinegar.
To come up with my ranking, I rated these sandwiches in thirds: 30% for the quality of the meat and cheese, 30% for the inventiveness of the fixin's or "salad," and 30% for the feel and texture of the bread. The last 10% is how they all go together.
1. Sarcone's Deli (734 S 9th St., Philadelphia, 215-922-1717)
Take a good long look because this sandwich was hands down the best of the bunch. The bread was crunchy perfect and "imported" from the bakery down the block. The meat combination and proportion against the provolone was sensational while the salad was tangy and the tomato was garden fresh. Compact and exploding with flavor. Note the thinness of the roll and superb ratio of meat to salad.
2. Chickie's Italian Deli (1014 Federal St., Philadelphia; 215-462-8040)
A close runner-up, Chickie's owner runs his store with plenty of Philly sass and warmth. The sandwich was fruity-juicy and the cheese was chunky rather than thin sliced, enabling it to join the taste of the meat fast. The tomatoes were ripe and juicy and the bread wrapped around the interior firmly. As Chickie put it, "A virtual Garden of Eden in there."
3. John's Deli (2033 Stillwell Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y.; 718) 265-7011; no website)
Located in the Gravesend section of Brooklyn, this sandwich shop isn't the Ritz but its sandwiches were terrific. In the one pictured above, the taste of the meat choices together was spectacular, and the same went for the onions, lettuce, hot peppers and vinegar and oil. The bread was a tad spongier than its Philly cousins, but this sub had the most flavor in New York.
4. Landi's Pork Store (5909 Avenue N, Brooklyn, N.Y.; 718-763-3230)
Landi's is in Mill Basin, Brooklyn, makes a thick sandwich accompanied by a fun, wet salad. The store also sells a gang of pre-cooked take-home Italian specialities, including heavenly meatballs or sausages in red sauce, penne bolognese and rigatoni with gravy.
5. White House (2301 Arctic Ave, Atlantic City, N.J.; 609-345-1564)
The White House has been in the same location since 1946, the year Dizzy Gillespie recorded Ray's Idea for Musicraft. The bread had a soft finish and the quality of meats was terrific. My only beef is that it's a bit meat-heavy and not inventive enough in the salad department. But the flavor with the red pppers made up for all the flaws.
6. Leo's Lattcini-Mama's (46-02 104th St, Queens, N.Y.; 718-898-6069; no website)
Mama's—as it's known in the 'hood—crafts a sandwich with fresh mozzarella that's made in the store. It also adds great fixings, including marinated mushrooms. The only drawback is that the volume of people ordering sandwiches means the counter often pre-slices the bread and lays on the cheese in advance. But you can ask them to bypass all that and design it from scratch. [Photo above by Lauren Wannermeyer]
7. Dave's Hoagies (26 Cedar St., New York; 212-248-1000)
A good, tasty sandwich, but thin on the meat compared with its competition above. As a result, your mouth winds up working the salad before ever encountering the cold cuts. Also, the counterperson offered me a choice of mayo or a special sauce on the sandwich—a violation of Uncle Al's cardinal rule: "Make it like you mean it but keep it simple." Naturally, I declined both. [Photo by Melissa Ham]
8. Primo Hoagies (2043 Chestnut St., Philadelphia; 215-496-0540).
Yes, Primo Hoagies is a chain in the Philadelphia-New Jersey area, but the sandwich was righteous. Instead of hot peppers, I opted for what they call in Philadelphia "long hots." The Thumann's meat was sublime—soft and flavorful. Though the bread was a tad thick and the tomatoes were more diner than garden, the sub had a nice finish.
What would a post on sandwiches be without two non-Italian bonus offerings...
9. Best roast pork: Sarcone's Deli (734 S 9th St., Philadelphia, 215-922-1717)
The gang at Sarcone's roasts their own pork, so it has a black-peppery perfume permeating the sandwich. The broccoli and provolone were like a happily married couple. This is genius tucked into a fresh-baked roll and may beat all the Italian sandwiches for the sheer memory of your first bite. Sorry Uncle Al.
10. Best cheesesteak: Jim's Steaks (400 South St., Philadelphia; (215-928-1911)
In Philadelphia I sampled four cheesesteak sandwiches and found the genre pretty dull. The bread is almost always too squishy; the meat is cooked in water so whatever taste it had has been washed away; grilled onions are, well, grilled ; and Cheez Wiz is fairly gross—like the yellow paint they use on highways. But the best in town was the one above, where the ingredients came together smartly (I skipped the Wiz). It's worth the visit just for the 1937 art deco facade and interior.