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The Difference in Italian Delis

August 19, 2015

Amazingly, last Saturday’s Tour de Italian Deli was able to field three teams. For a while there, I thought I was going to have to take a run at it all by myself. And that would have been fine. After all, I do these things to answer my burning questions about foods which on the surface seem to be nearly identical, yet in reality are really quite different.

In the past we’ve seen this play out with apple cider donuts, mini hot dogs with meat sauce, soft serve, egg and cheese sandwiches, fish fry, tavern pizza, and more.

Sitting down at the very first stop, Albany Landlord was absolutely certain that the Italian mix sandwiches we would be sampling would have identical combinations of meat and cheese at each of the five locations. I was less convinced. But I have to confess that I came into the tour with some of my own preconceived notions, one of which was shattered before the day was done.

So which shop was found to have the best sandwich? Well, some of that depends on what you’re ordering. With three teams we were able to cover a lot of ground. Here’s how it all played out.

Each team had their own approach to the tour. Team one went with the straight Italian mix. Team two wanted to sample hot sandwiches and opted for eggplant parm. Team three threw the idea of consistency out the window and asked for the “house specialty” at each shop.

We were judging each sandwich on its bread, meat, vegetables, extras, value, and overall experience.

First stop: Fiorello’s Importing and Luigi’s Deli

The house specialty here happened to be the Eggplant Parm. For $7 you get about a pound and a half of hot toasted goodness. The bread got higher marks at this deli for the hot sandwich because its roll gets toasted to hold the eggplant, sauce and cheese. As far as eggplant parm sandwiches went, this one was fine. But with the presence of unmelted cheese and a “too tangy” sauce, everyone agreed you could do better.

The Italian mix here is a three way combination of salami, capocollo, and provolone. The meats are Boar’s Head, and we would be seeing the identical products at other stops. Luigi differentiated his meats by slicing them thickly. The “capocollo” was actually Boar’s Head “Cappy Brand Ham” which is little more than a spiced ham. On its own the Cappy offered a burst of heat at the back of the throat, but was overwhelmed by the other ingredients. The salami was flavorful, but standard issue. The provolone was actually Sorento brand and was bland and milky, even when sampled on its own.

I got lucky and scored a beautiful looking tomato. Really the only great one from the tour. Albany Landlord and Matt didn’t get as lucky. But the shredded iceberg lettuce and thin rings of white onion were well dressed with oil and vinegar, providing a reasonably balanced sandwich in flavor, if lacking the pungency of good provolone.

Luigi’s was also the only shop that sliced its bread into a v-shape instead of making a cut all the way through. The sandwich maker made the odd choice of putting the veg on bottom and the meat on top, which made the sandwich’s bottom edge grow dangerously soggy over time. The stiff, dry crumb of the Italian bread would most likely improve after the sandwich made the short trip from the deli to your desk.

At just under seven dollars for about one and a third pounds of sustenance, it was the least expensive sandwich of the day, and still far better than what you would find at Subway. If you want to eat there, the deli has concrete tables with umbrellas and benches outside.

 

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Second Stop: Pellegrino’s

Team eggplant parm was in for a tough run. For the most part they found their sandwiches to be disappointing. Even at six dollars and change for their twelve ounce sandwich, they were unimpressed. Let’s just leave it at that and move on to something the deli did well.

As luck would have it, the Italian mix was this deli’s specialty sandwich. So we had two teams sampling a sub that was made of not just Boar’s Head Cappy and salami, but also included mortadella and sharp provolone. Bam! This was a strong performer. Its beautiful bread was sliced fully lengthwise which made for a messier sandwich. Especially since the shredded lettuce was doused with copious amounts of herbed oil.

The rest of the veg was unremarkable. The sandwich could have used more red onions or a splash of vinegar to bring it in balance. Even better tomatoes might have done the trick. Given that we’re in the height of tomato season, and these are Italian delis, I was really surprised at the poor quality of tomatoes across the board.

This hefty sandwich was almost one and three-quarter pounds. So even with the nine dollar price tag it was a good value. Here we were able to eat at tables inside, but there are also tables outdoors overlooking the parking lot.

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Third stop: Ragonese

Team eggplant parm didn’t find much to love here either. Well, they found a lot of sandwich. Their eight bucks and change bought the team a one pound, twelve ounce monster of mediocrity.

Team specialty went with the sausage, peppers, and onions parm grinder, after learning that Ragonese makes their own sausage in house. Almost nine dollars bought them a sandwich just as heavy as the eggplant parm monster, but significantly more delicious. They enjoyed the sausage itself and the sauce, but felt the cheese was poorly distributed. It may seem like a little thing, but the distribution of ingredients is critical.

Team Italian mix was treated to something pretty special here. At our third stop, we got a third different interpretation of the Italian mix. Here it’s salami, fatty capocollo, pepperoni, and provolone. This was the first actual capocollo on the tour, and it was magnificent. It looked nothing like the spongy, spice dusted, Boar’s Head Cappy, much to its credit. In fact, it was Battistoni Capocollo from Buffalo.

The killer part was how all that marvelous flavor was drowned out by the heaping piles of salami and pepperoni. This was a mega-meatwich. Tomatoes were underripe. Thin slivers of red onion were barely there. And the whole leaf lettuce was beautiful to look at, but didn’t provide the crisp crunch of shredded iceberg to offset all that meat. And perhaps because the greens couldn’t hold the dressing, the balsamic vinegar splashed on the Ragonese sandwich was almost entirely soaked up into the bun.

All that meat felt like an incredible value for nine dollars and change. Especially since the Italian mix was just as large as the hot sandwiches, which we ate at the high tops in the back of the store. But it was too much of a good thing and given the weakness of the veg was totally unbalanced. Next time I come back here, I’m getting a sandwich made with that capocollo and provolone and it’s going to be glorious.

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Fourth Stop: Andy’s

I watched team eggplant parm look sadly at what they received from Andy’s and reluctantly take a bite to confirm what their eyes had already told them.

Team Italian mix did significantly better. Andy’s got the highest marks for bread with its sesame seed coated rolls. The Boar’s Head meats were seemingly identical to our first stop with a combination of Cappy and salami with a token amount of provolone thrown in for good measure. The quantity of meat was modest, and the quality of the vegetables wasn’t spectacular.

But this sandwich demonstrates the power of well dressed shredded lettuce. Because unlike every other sandwich sampled, this one was remarkably well balanced. Salty and tangy, bready and meaty. And this marked the rare occurrence where the total is greater than the sum of its parts. At $7.55 for a pound and a third of sandwich, it felt like a good value too.

Team specialty ordered what was simply called the House Special. And that was the already strong Italian mix with the addition of roasted red peppers and marinated eggplant. For just about a dollar more, you get seven extra ounces of sandwich, and those vegetables take a great sandwich and make it even better. Henesea said, “The whole sandwich worked well. The eggplant & roasted red peppers made the sandwich outstanding.” The other half of the team, JimmyDThing remarked, “It was the best balance in terms of the sandwich itself as well as the balance between unique and traditional.”

Without a doubt, I will need to return just to try this vegetable enhanced variation on the classic.

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Fifth Stop: Cardona’s

Finally, team eggplant parm scores a victory. Juan joyfully proclaimed that even after a string of poor performers this sandwich “hit the spot” and was exactly what he had been expecting from this category. maxsutfin rejoiced at the simple fact that “all parts of [the] sandwich were hot.” At seven dollars for fifteen ounces, this sandwich stole the show for the team across all measures.

Team specialty did less well. Their “Fuh-gettaboutit” sounded like a delightful mix of chicken, mozzarella, spinach and prosciutto. But it was far too oily, and the fresh mozz was found to be in need of salt. At eight bucks and change for a sixteen ounce sandwich, it wasn’t scoring points for value either.

An Italian mix isn’t technically on the menu here. But that didn’t stop us from asking for an “Italian mix.” Part of the idea of the tour was to see what each place thinks this means. What they made for us was Cappy with salami, pepperoni and sharp provolone. The meats were fine and modestly portioned. It tied with Fiorello’s as the lightest sandwich of the day, but came in a full two dollars more for basically the same deli fillings.

What set Cardona’s apart was the tenderness of the roll and the use of chopped hot peppers. Personally, I enjoyed this inclusion. Albany Landlord wasn’t so thrilled about their unannounced presence. Nobody was thrilled with the underripe tomato and whole leaf lettuce. Those striking dark green leaves put style over substance. These meaty sandwiches require some complement to help offset all that salt and fat. One piece of lettuce isn’t going to cut it.

But they do have a little galley, lined with two counters, where you can sit and eat your sandwich, which is nice.

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Results

For an eggplant parm sub, it’s not even close. Get yours at Cardona’s. It’s reasonably priced, reasonably sized, sufficiently hot and incredibly delicious.

Matt, who was on the Italian mix team, throws his support behind Pellegrino’s. It’s hard to argue against the inclusion of mortadella, and it was the mix of the meats that he found enticing. The sharp provolone also helped elevate this sandwich in his estimation.

The most delicious thing I had all day was the capocollo at Ragonese, and that should be captured somewhere in the ultimate findings.

However, it was the broad consensus that Andy’s made the best sandwiches of the day. It won both the Italian mix and specialty categories for its well balanced and deeply flavorful subs, which start with their seeded roll.

Congratulations to the winners and thanks to all the participants for lending your bodies to science for the day. And a special note of thanks to Matt for taking pictures of every Italian mix shown above. This was a lot of fun, and now maybe we can turn it into a summer tradition.

There are many, many more sandwiches to eat. And all of them are so different.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. MikeH permalink
    August 19, 2015 10:58 am

    Glad to see my favorite Pellegrino’s make a solid showing. They are my neighborhood Italian deli and my family gets subs from them a couple times a month. I’ll have to get down to Albany though. Those Ragonese and Andy’s subs look killer!

    Living in Colonie my go to places for Itailian mix subs over the years have been Pellegrino’s, Bella Napoli and Genoa Importing. The thing I have noticed is that the subs are not only different between the deli’s but it also makes a difference who makes the sub at a particular deli. The ingredients are the same but I find each person tends to add their own touch – a little more/less oil or oil on the roll vs. oil on the lettuce, more onion/less onion, the order the meats are stacked, etc.

  2. August 19, 2015 11:03 am

    So sorry I ended up having to miss it, looks like a great time!!

  3. August 19, 2015 11:48 am

    Thanks for harping on the tomatoes. I hope all places that make sandwiches take note: ripe tomatoes will make people love you, especially if you get the summer harvest into your salads and sandwiches. Don’t just get them off the Sysco truck. Take the extra time to get the best.

    And I’m jealous but so glad you all did such great work for the rest of us. I’m headed out to Andy’s for lunch today and trying to see how I can fit all the other places into my schedule.

  4. -R. permalink
    August 19, 2015 12:08 pm

    I’m fairly certain Andy’s gets their sub rolls from a bakery in Yonkers. I recall this from a conversation with them maybe 20 years ago, where I asked if I could buy only some of the rolls. The response was, “Young man, absolutely not – they’re only for the sandwiches”. Dejected, I took my Italian mix with roasted reds and sharp provolone (chunk cheese as they used to call it – they wouldn’t run it through the slicer, so had to cut it grudgingly by hand) and headed home. It’s always been those rolls that keep me coming back.

  5. RogerK permalink
    August 19, 2015 1:00 pm

    Thanks to all for their participation. Thanks to Dan for organizing this event. I really enjoyed reading this summary.

  6. August 20, 2015 9:39 am

    Thick meat, too much meat, and leaf lettuce instead of shredded are such bonehead mistakes I am surprised these places remain in business. Also sad to see the infiltration of Boar’s Head into old-school Italian places. I am always on the look for the pig’s profile because it tells me I will receive a commodity product and should shop elsewhere.

  7. Shawn permalink
    August 20, 2015 5:54 pm

    From my experience at Ragonese, you can order a sandwich with half meat which is still plenty and the sandwich costs a bit less. The tomatoes and prevalence of Boar’s Head is disappointing. Is everyone just using the same distributor and in order to stay price competitive using basically the same ingredients? Since most of these places are neighborhood joints I guess it works to some extent so people don’t go to the nearby Subway. I can also see this as a race to the bottom while trying to please everybody instead of making something truly special and worth going out of your way for.

  8. albanylandlord permalink
    August 21, 2015 12:20 pm

    While Boar’s Head certainly doesn’t make the very best meats out there, they are better than the norm and represent a mark of Quality to the typical Deli customer. I think a Deli would have a hard time sourcing so many different meats without Boars Head and would get tired of explaining that their meats were actually better than Boars Head. That’s not to say you shouldn’t look for a house made turkey or Roast Beef, or ask what they have that is out of the norm and unusually good…

    Although there may only be 6-8 weeks of great tomatoes out there in Albany, it was shocking nobody cared enough to change their routine and source those as they are so unbelievably good. It was also disappointing to watch the sandwich makers put tomato slices with large sections of green on the sandwiches, or even one with a brown stem top (I’m looking at you Andy’s – my otherwise favorite).

    Thanks to Daniel for having the idea and putting it together, I really enjoyed the day and learning first hand how different the sandwiches were.

  9. rachelk permalink
    August 24, 2015 10:25 am

    Your tour was woefully incomplete as you did not stop at Stella Del Mare’s on Madison Ave, one of the very best Italian delis in the area. Jerry’s subs are delicious & Rosanna’s cooking is to die for! Stella’s & Andy’s both have wonderful food and good service.

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