The pace of workaday life in America has necessitated relatively short lunch hours and the need for workers to consume food fairly quickly, usually at or near work. Italy’s cured meats, stemming from the historical need to preserve scarce resources, have proven ideal for sandwiches, the perfect quick and portable meal. Prosciutto, salami, capocollo, and mortadella are just a few. So, it is not surprising that immigrant Italians help create some of this country’s most popular sandwiches with meats like these, including the iconic sub sandwich. In Italy these meats are usually eaten separately, accompanied with bread, cheese, and wine. “Some of the best sandwiches are built at the antipasti table,” according to the proprietors of a hip Italianate sandwich shop in New York.
Interestingly, though sandwiches do exist in Italy, they are not a big part of the dining equation, reserved for snack time or, otherwise, the seemingly rare instances when Italians feel they cannot take time for a full meal. The innumerable coffee shops (bars) in every town and stops on the autostrade have wonderful, simple sandwiches, usually uncomplicated combinations such as judicious amounts of excellent prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, a splash of decent olive oil, a quick dash of both salt and pepper within a fragrant, crusty roll. These are as flavorful as these are cheap.
Much of the sandwich tradition in the country stems from Italian and European Jewish immigrant antecedents. From the Italian-American fast food legacy there are a couple styles of cold sandwiches (room-temperature, really) and a few more hot sandwiches. The first cold sandwich is one on an eight- to ten-inch loaf of bread about three inches wide sliced lengthwise and filled with Italian-style cold cuts, slices of cheese and tomatoes, often shredded lettuce, maybe preserved peppers, and a dash of olive oil and vinegar. The combination features tartness from the vinegar of the preserved vegetables, the bite of peppers, satiating meatiness, the slightly crisp texture of the lettuce, the aroma and taste of freshly baked bread, and often some residual oil on hands or clothing. These sandwiches might have had antecedents in the central Sicilian town of Vallelunga, whose emigrants made it to America. According to Sicilian cookbook author Anna Maria Tasca:
“[from] the bakery in Vallelunga [is] the grandfather of the American hero sandwich, this one is made on a sfilatino, a long bread like a French ficelle. The owner’s wife cuts the bread in half the long way and fills it with sarde salate (salated sardines), which she drizzles with olive oil and dusts with a mixture of oregano, salt, ground hot pepper, and grated almonds.”
Whether named hero, submarine, hoagie, grinder, Italian, or torpedo, these are similar regional variations created in the northeast by Italian immigrants, often Sicilians, or Italian-Americans. In one version or another, usually with the sub name, these are found throughout the country.
The very first of this style of sandwiches seems to have been created in the unlikely town of Portland, Maine, the Italian sandwich. Descriptively named for its creator, Giovanni Amato in 1902, and most of the earliest customers, it consists of fresh bread casing slices of cold cuts, cheese, and tomatoes, with green peppers, spicy pickles, olives, onions, and oil with salt and pepper. What began as a cart, Amato’s Sandwich Shop is still open today.
The similar, if oddly named, hoagie got its start in Philadelphia in 1929, or possibly a year earlier, according to the most believable story. A certain Al DePalma was walking down busy Broad Street when two men holding huge sandwiches passed near, he heard one say “you have to be a hog to eat one of those.” A couple of years later, DePalma remembered the vignette when he opened a small restaurant, and named his long sandwiches, likely modeled from a version elsewhere in the northeast, “hoggies.” The original version probably consisted of Italian-style cold cuts, cheese, and lettuce garnished with a choice among tomatoes, onion, peppers and pickles, and slathered with oil, mustard, and, unusual for Italian-run places, mayonnaise. Its success drew many imitators. After the Second World War, the sandwich name became a “hoagie,” reflecting the harsh Philadelphia accent, “HO-gie.”
Whatever the name, the sandwich has long been an American classic.
This has been adapted from my eBook, From the Antipasto to the Zabaglione – A Story of Italian Restaurants in America that is available on Amazon.