Off the Eatin’ Path

photo/Zachary Barowitz


Italians, Upgraded

It’s been almost 110 years since Giovanni Amato started selling lunch on Portland’s waterfront. His invention has become our city’s signature sandwich, the Italian. But like some other aspects of Portland, its sandwich could stand some gentrification too.

For one thing, the bread’s gone all mushy. Unlike most other sandwiches, sogginess is considered a virtue of Italians, although the extent is a matter of taste and debate. Some people eat Italians fresh, when the bread is still dry; others wait 15 minutes (long enough to walk back to work) for the oil and veggie juices to begin to soak in. Still others will buy an Italian on their way to work in the morning so that it’s completely congealed and uniformly soggy by lunchtime — the deli paper wrapping acting as a mould.

Just as bánh mì is a fusion of French and Vietnamese cuisine, the Italian of today has a lot of Yankee in it. It’s essentially a ham and cheese on white with tomato, onion, olives, green peppers, dill pickles, and a liberal dousing of oil (olive oil, often “specially blended” with something cheaper).

While there’s nothing wrong with the ingredients of Italians from sandwich shops like Amato’s, Di Pietro’s and Anania’s — the junky-goodness being part of the appeal — there’s no reason for the home caterer or lunch prepper not to take it up a notch. This involves some culling ingredients from a variety of local purveyors.

The Bread: Standard Baking Company

Here’s an idea: an Italian with a crust! A traditional baguette (the signature loaf from Standard Baking Company) will give your sandwich the character and texture it deserves.

Veggies: The Farmers’ Market

There is a Yugoslavian saying that goes, “The tomatoes are best when the Gypsies are throwing them at each other.” September is the best time of year for farmers’ market veggies, especially tomatoes. Late yields and fewer tourists mean the offerings are cheap, juicy and plentiful. Preferred sandwich tomatoes include the beefsteak, brandywine, and champion, but any non-sauce, non-cherry tomato will do.

Green peppers are not easily digestible, so you may consider experimenting with different varieties. You may also wish to include, or substitute, the long, green, Italian hot peppers, peperoncini, or a marinated pepper.

Scallions impart a fresher taste than traditional yellow onions, although soaking the diced onion in vinegar brine imparts a bright juiciness.

Cold Cuts, Olives, Cheese, and Olive Oil: Micucci’s

Amato’s makes an Italian with Italian cold cuts, which is good, but their version tastes more Sysco than Sissa (home of the Sapori del Maiale, The Flavors of the Pig Festival). Miccuci’s, located on India Street about a block from an Amato’s, doesn’t make sandwiches, but it a favorite local source of Italian and Mediterranean foods. Capricola, sopressatta, mortadella — are all good choices for sandwich meat. But avoid prosciutto (goyishe lox), as its leathery chewiness is better suited to melon than sandwiches.

The cheese should have a presence but not be overpowering; an asiago, a slightly piccante provolone, commercial-smoked mozzarella or deli-sliced smoked gouda strike a good balance. You might also include shaved parmesan with a blander cheese like a provolone dolce.

Amato’s uses purple, brine-cured kalamata olives, which remain a good choice. Other black olives to try include the dry-salt-cured, wrinkly and oily gaeta, which is flavored with herbs, and the salty lugano. Micucci’s sells canned, Roland-brand, anchovy-stuffed green olives that offer juicy blasts of umami but are not fishy.

As far as olive oil goes, there are aficionados who treat specialty oils like wine, complete with flavor notes and other jargon. For my money, I prefer the more robust Spanish and Turkish oils to the Italian ones. Roland has a cheap, decent, unfiltered oil (unfiltered oil is best for salads and sandwiches, not for cooking) and Zoe is a good and inexpensive Spanish oil. Consumer Reports has previously named Goya the best-tasting oil, largely for its bold flavor.

Pickles: Medeo European Food & Deli

Is it worth a trip to Westbrook for some pickles? In this case, yes. Medeo’s half-sour pickles (fermented in brine, not cured in vinegar) are fresh-tasting and crunchy. However, the sandwich shop dill pickle adds more acidity. If you use a half-sour, sprinkle on some lemon juice or red wine vinegar (Amato’s adds vinegar by request) to retain the necessary zest. Of course, pickles refers to more than just cucumbers, and any of the Italian pickled peppers (available at Micucci’s) would be more that suitable.

— Zachary Barowitz


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