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Leave the Tomato. Take the Peppers.

June 21, 2016

It’s taken me a while to learn about Italian Delis, but I’m doing my best. If I had spent more of my life in New York or New Jersey, I might be embarrassed by my lack of knowledge on the subject. Instead, I’m more familiar with Cuban cafeterias, Philly cheesesteak parlors, and California taquerias. So I don’t feel too badly for myself.

But here I am now, today, in upstate New York, surrounded by Italian Delis. The Tour de Italian Deli went a long way in my educational efforts. I learned that Italian Mix isn’t a universal combination of ingredients. I learned that “cappy” can really mean a bunch of things. And I learned that Italian sandwiches actually benefit from some time to cure in their wrapper for all of the ingredients to come together.

The last one sounds like bullshit, but it’s true.

I also learned the importance of shredded iceberg over leaf lettuce, and how onions and vinegar are critical ingredients for cutting through some of the fatty and salty meats stuffed into the roll. I even came to realize that “fatty cappy” is the only deli meat worthy of the name.

All of which is to say that I thought I had triangulated my way to my ideal Italian sub. As it turns out, I was wrong again.

There’s another important lesson that learned last week when I went to Pellegrino’s in search of comfort. Last Monday was shitty, and I just wanted to shove my face with meat, cheese, and bread. Screw the diet.

Well, I didn’t entirely abandon the diet. I went with a half sized sub, which still proved to be shockingly large. Here was the order: Half sub with fatty cappy, mortadella, and sharp provolone. Lettuce, tomato, onion, oil, and vinegar.

Part of me at the time was thinking about adding some hot cherry peppers to the mix. But I thought it would be too much. Especially with the fatty cappy, which has some heat to it. Besides, I didn’t want to screw up the delicate balance between the meat, cheese, and vegetables. And I still think that was the right call.

But after taking a first bite, I quickly realized there was something I did wrong.

The more sandwiches I try, the more I come to realize that even though a lot of ingredients are jammed into these subs, for them to be truly excellent, every component has to be working as hard as it can. Each ingredient has an important role to play, and if one element isn’t carrying its weight, the sandwich falls flat.

For example, balsamic vinegar might be great on salads, but you need something with more acidity on a sub. Shredded iceberg may be shunned by the fancy food set, but it works gangbusters for both lightening up a sub and giving it some crunch, but also providing nooks and crannies to hold the oil and vinegar without leaving a completely sodden roll.

Tomatoes should be glorious as part of the mix. But while they are a natural fit, for 11 months out of the year, they are just wet mushy things that add no flavor and an unpleasant mealy texture.

Seriously. When I walked into Pellegrino’s, I overheard someone complaining that he forgot to tell them to leave off the tomatoes. Well, it was either that, or he told them and the sandwich maker included it anyway. Either way, the fellow didn’t want tomatoes, and he had tomatoes.

I was taken aback by how seriously he took the situation. At the time, I thought he was just being a whiner, because it’s easy to take a tomato off. But now I’m starting to understand.

Tomatoes on an Italian sub are a travesty.

This must be where the peppers come in! A nightshade to replace a nightshade. The savvy Italian sub eater must know that to get that juicy burst of flavor, without biting into something moist and mealy, you need a jarred, roasted, or pickled pepper.

It makes so much sense. I’ll have to put this theory to the test. Surely, there’s more to be learned, but we’ll approach each new sandwich as it comes. For now, if anyone has thoughts on sandwich peppers, I’m all ears.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Dave permalink
    June 21, 2016 10:03 am

    I’m a fan of Cora hot crushed cherry pepper on Italian sorts of subs.

  2. June 21, 2016 11:05 am

    Have not been to Pellegrino’s and have no plans to go based on their proudly advertised use of mediocre Boar’s Head meats. That said, you are wrong yet again about Italian subs. The tomato will be sliced wafter thin in a quality place and it will always add a welcome note of lubrication, in season or out. If you are getting a thick mealy slice that calls attention to itself then you are in the wrong deli.

    As to peppers, “jarred, roasted or pickled” is a category description so broad as to be meaningless. Cherry peppers, individually sliced, can be interesting if done right. Roasted peppers with their mild flavor are best on sandwiches that also involve fresh mozz. I’m with Mr. Dave on the preference for crushed red pepper though I use Pastene vs Cora.

    Bonus skinflint tip: Rather than pay an unreasonable $1 extra for a few pennies worth of the substance in the deli, I keep my jar at home (or take it in my car) and slather it on the sandwich myself.

  3. June 21, 2016 12:20 pm

    This is the version of the Italian sub that I order every time: Mortadella, hot soppressata, fresh mozz, roasted red peppers, red onion, oil and vinegar. Give that one a try next time. I absolutely hate lettuce of any kind but especially shredded lettuce on a sub so it does get a bit soggy if it sits around too long.

  4. June 21, 2016 1:07 pm

    Pellegrino’s is my favorite Italian Deli in the area. They have a great hot pepper relish that you should try next time on your sub.

  5. WCF permalink
    June 21, 2016 3:52 pm

    Nothing better than a food related “quote” from the Godfather. Well done.

  6. buffsoulja permalink
    June 21, 2016 6:38 pm

    Besides the obvious quality of the bread and meat/cheese, I always ate my Italian Mix without really thinking about what works/doesn’t work at each particular place. Now I am kinda bummed I didn’t go on the tour de Italian Deli to really see what makes the perfect combo and what each place does well/screws up.

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