A Survey of Schenectady Subs
Summer may be the wrong time of year to have a sandwich tour. Perhaps there is some kind of summery sandwich. Oh, I know: a BLT. When tomato season is at its peak, a big fat slice of ripe juicy tomato on toast, paired with some crunchy, smoky bacon, and some refreshingly crisp iceberg lettuce, is just about perfect.
But there is something extra brutal about asking people to sample five different Italian subs in the sweltering heat. And while you never know exactly what you might get when ordering an Italian mix, you’re guaranteed plenty of salty cured meats, usually with a bit of a spicy kick.
Well, last Saturday was unbearably hot for the Tour de Italian Deli Subs 2.0, yet that did not dissuade a few hearty souls from showing up and joining me for this epic feat. The best news of the day was that the rain stayed away, so the only reason we would end up soaking wet was if we succumbed to a case of the meat sweats.
This was a day full of great stories. And I’m sorry that more of you couldn’t join us. However, I’m thrilled to share the tale of what happened when we drove through Schenectady in search of the city’s greatest Italian mix.
We were able to field two teams for most of the tour. This year both teams shared the common goal of tasting Italian mix subs. Each was ordered based on the following script.
At every stop we requested an Italian mix with lettuce, onion, and tomato. Oil and vinegar. Salt and pepper.
Then we asked if they had sharp provolone. If the cheese incurred an extra charge, we demurred, since it obviously was not officially considered a part of the “Italian mix.” If we were given a choice of red wine vinegar or balsamic, the choice would be red wine.
Any other decisions would be made on an ad hoc basis.
With all of these ground rules decided, we walked up to the counter of Nikki P’s in Rotterdam to place our first order. Nikki P’s does it all. The place is a bakery, a pastry shop, a pizza parlor, and a deli. And when we walked in there was a couple inquiring if they sold their pretzel rolls a la carte. Apparently they were good. And people love their pizza. So Josh K. was compelled to buy some pizza rolls as an appetizer while our subs were being constructed, erictaub picked up a slice of pizza as a kind of amuse-bouche, and BurntMyFingers bought something sweet to save for a post tour treat.
These are the kinds of maniacs who show up for a sub tour on a blisteringly hot summer day. And I love their gusto.
As it turns out, Nikki P’s makes its own sub rolls too, so this promised to be exciting. And the bread part totally was. Although Josh’s pretzel rolls hot out of the oven were even better than the house made sub rolls. So if you can grab some, do it.
Unfortunately, the good sub rolls were not put to good use when filled with bland, thickly sliced cuts of salami, pepperoni, and ham. Not only was sharp provolone not available for the Italian mix, but it wasn’t even stocked in house. The cheese added little to the sandwich. The whole thing was saved by the lettuce, onions, and vinegar. However, even at the height of tomato season, the potentially bright and juicy element was picked off the sandwich by two tasters.
At $8.59 for one pound and eleven ounces of sandwich, it wasn’t a bad value. And it wasn’t a bad sub. Good bread helps. But it’s not going to be the thing that drives us back to this beloved Rotterdam institution. I suspect there are many better subs here than the Italian mix. So don’t write this place off just yet.
With a solid sub in our bellies, we were off to stop number two.
Capri Imports is exactly what I imagine an old school Schenectady Italian deli to be. A small espresso counter by the front window overlooks the street. Behind it are a few narrow aisles packed with delicious Italian imports, and at the very back of the store is the deli counter. There are three, count ‘em, three deli slicers in operation, and this tiny market needs every single one of them.
Here sandwiches aren’t just a few thick slices of meat to fill a bun. They are an avalanche of thinly sliced meats that take time to prepare. Mostly because once they start putting meat on bread, they don’t want to stop. It’s astounding.
Remember those ad hoc decisions I mentioned before. Well we were faced with a doozy when asked about our Italian mix at Capri Imports. “Would you like that on a Prinzo’s sub roll, or on a half loaf of our house-made bread?” Turns out, they were the same price. While the Prinzo’s roll would keep all of the sandwiches more standardized across the board, how could we not let Capri strut its stuff and show us how amazing its Italian mix could be on the bread made in house?
When the woman behind the counter said the house-made bread was better, the deal was sealed. And while Capri absolutely had sharp provolone, there would be an upcharge for that, so we went with standard provolone. Rules are rules. Even though we did pay an extra fifty cents for lettuce, tomato, and onion.
The tomato, mind you, was hand sliced. And even with the upcharge for the vegetables, this monster sandwich which weighed in at just over two pounds was still only six dollars and forty five cents. So I can’t begrudge Capri the four bits for the LTO.
Epic is the only way to describe this sandwich.
This is the story of a sandwich that got crushed under its own weight. Because here’s the thing. If you are going for the greatest sandwich value, look no further. You’ve found it. There is so much meat in this thing, it’s astounding. And the blend of meats works well together too. Funky salami, with spicy cappy, and sweet ham is a delightful combination. Although the ham plays too heavy of a role in this mix for my taste. But the thin slices still go a long way to give the meat component one of the highest scores on the tour.
I’m fairly certain that the low vegetable scores are the result of those flavors and textures being entirely drowned out by the mountain of meat.
Yes, the balance may have been off, but this was an amazing sandwich, and was clearly a very close second place finisher. If you’ve never been to Capri Imports, you owe it to yourself to get here. Seriously, it’s amazing.
For our third stop, we had a complete failure. I can’t even remember the last tour in which this happened. But Cappiello Foods no longer makes sandwiches to order. There were a few premade sandwiches without LTO on them that had been sitting around wrapped in plastic in the cooler. But that’s not what this tour is about.
I apparently had some bad information. Cappiello is indeed a mighty fine Italian deli. I’ve been in there before for sliced meats and cheeses and have left mighty pleased. The staff is fantastic, and their locally made ricotta is delicious.
So we left empty handed, but a little bit smarter, and hoped we would be able to find a fifth Italian deli to replace this void on the scoresheet further down the road. But onward we went.
It was time to go up Van Vranken Avenue to La Gioia Deli. The deli itself is relatively small, and the sandwich counter takes up most of the space. So with the skies turning black and thunder rolling in the distance, we took our sandwiches to the shade of the hatchback, and ate them out in the street.
That mountain of meat at Capri put a damper on almost everyone’s appetite. So instead of taking a standard portion of La Gioia’s sub, most opted for a smaller portion. Fortunately, I carry around a bread knife and cutting board for this tour.
Take a look at this thing. It doesn’t look like much. And the bread here got mixed scores to boot. We were told it came from New Mont Pleasant Bakery. There isn’t a ton of meat packed into that roll, but it’s a solid mix of hot, fatty, cappy, with ham, and salami. Yes, the cheese in it is clearly hand cut sharp provolone. And that definitely made a difference. But the thing that put this sandwich over the edge and into the shining light of glory was its brilliant balance, driven in no small part by the aggressive vinegar punch in the dressing.
These fatty, salty, sandwiches need something to keep those flavors in check. And vinegar is just the condiment to do it.
The x-factor here was that even though the weather was brutally hot, even though we were all outrageously stuffed, everyone wanted to get a second bite of that sandwich. It was just that good. Everything worked together, just like it should. And sure, you’re paying for the privilege. Ounce for ounce, this was the most expensive sandwich on the tour, weighing in at a scant nineteen ounces and setting us back almost nine bucks. But it was totally worth it.
Of all the sandwiches we ate that day, La Gioia’s Italian mix was unanimously named the favorite.
Josh K. had to peel off with his wife and daughter. However, that left the rest of us to finish the tour at Marcella’s on Route 50 between East Glenville and Ballston. Marcella’s is an interesting place, because it’s part restaurant, part takeout Italian deli, part pizza shop, and part ice cream parlor.
Given the weather, and our fading stamina, we decided to eat in the restaurant portion of the building to take full advantage of creature comforts like air conditioning and chairs. I have to believe that this would be the same sandwich you would be served at the adjacent deli since it comes from the same kitchen.
But it’s mostly a non-issue, because this turned out to be the least impressive spot on the tour. The bread was toasted, and that was nice, but the pepperoni, salami, ham combo was done better at Nikki P’s where the shop optimized for flavor. With one thin slice of pepperoni, this sandwich felt like it wasn’t even trying. And without a lot of meat or flavor, paying eight bucks for a twenty ounce sandwich felt like a poor deal.
Still, I’m hoping to return here for a frozen custard. There wasn’t room in my belly for a sweet treat after this tour. But one of these days I’ll make it happen.
Since BurntMyFingers and erictaub were headed back to Saratoga Springs anyhow, we called the tour over after this fourth sandwich. Part of me thought about filling in the gap from Cappiello’s with The Brown Bag, but that’s not an Italian deli. So we let discretion be the better part of valor.
Although I will admit to swinging back through Capri on my way home to pick up one last Italian mix sub. But this time I got it on one of those long sub rolls from Prinzo’s. And I have to say, the proportions were a little more manageable. However, even so, the La Gioia Italian mix was the sandwich that won my heart.
I did get to hear the regulars at Capri Imports talk about ordering a sub with an extra roll on the side. Because those in the know are keenly aware the shop packs two sandwiches worth of meat into a roll. And it’s a very clever workaround to the situation.
Congratulations to La Gioia for winning this really close showdown. And thank you to all the participants for lending their bodies to science. I’m hoping there will be more interest in pursuing a Tour de Italian Deli Subs 3.0 in the spring. Sure, people will be gearing up for swimsuit season, but it won’t be so brutally hot. And maybe if we go closer to Albany, the turnout will be better.
I’m not sure. Just remember the Tour de Cider Donut will be here before we know it. So don’t forget to check back regularly. I’d hate for you to miss it.