Wife Jackie and I were watching our favorite show the other night. Actually, it was a few "other nights" ago, but this particular program only hits the television on special occasions. Sandwiches That You Will Like is one of the crowning achievements in film and television history, and it’s unfortunate that this documentary on the contiguous-48’s best bread fillers is only played during public TV’s annual pledge drives. I think it deserves its own 24-hour network, if you ask me, along with its equally fine sister film, A Hot Dog Program. They can drive us to ravenous states even after gut-busting meals.
Each time we watch, it’s nice to see Maine’s signature sandwich, the lobster roll (presented from Red’s in Wiscasset), featured on the small screen. But the more folks I talk to, and the more I read up on the subject, it becomes clearer to me that the lobster roll is a puppet cuisine. They can be delicious, of course, but they’re just so . . . you know, stereotypically Mainey. They’re filled with lobster (eagerly pronounced with the famous Downeast twang by that same New Yorker who almost ran you down while pulling into DiMillo’s), you get them at clam shacks, they’re covered in mayonnaise, etc.
No, what I found out is that the sandwich that should have been on my favorite TV show is the one that is consumed by Mainers, and I’m just spitballing here, one trillion times more often than the lobster roll: The Italian Sandwich.
It was a bit of a shock to me when I first discovered that folks up here were claiming responsibility for a meal that I had been eating for years, all the way across the country and back, but further investigation slackened my suspicion. First off, I grabbed my trusty American Heritage Dictionary and looked it up. Definition number three stated "Regional. See Submarine." One cross reference later, I was reading all about crusty breads, meats and veggies, and reading that "In Maine, it is called an Italian Sandwich, befitting its heritage." All right, so it’s pretty much agreed that we started the Italian sandwich thing, at least in name. But take that sandwich, hop in your el Camino, head down to Rhode Island, and you have yourself a Grinder. Drive it down to New York, and you’ll be eating a slightly soggy Hero. Hop over to Hoboken, and you’ll probably be finishing your last few bites of a Hoagie. And God forbid you drive that same sandwich all the way down to Miami, you’ll be getting food poisoning from a Cuban Sandwich.
So what’s the deal? Is ours special, or what?
First, let’s concede a few points. Mainers did not invent the process of slapping some thinly sliced ham and salami on a roll and topping it with veggies. Nor did we create the oiling and seasoning of said bread, meat, and vegetables. I’m sure this was going on at all corners of the United States, not to mention the world, as good ideas tend to evolve independently of each other. Take alcohol, for instance. Or clothes. Or moustaches.
As all of you know who have perused the Amato’s literature while waiting for their chicken parm to make its way along the oven conveyer belt, in 1903, Giovanni Amato threw some meats, cheese, and veggies on a fresh-baked Italian roll to feed his fellow countrymen working on the docks near India Street. Thus born was "That Sandwich That All Those Italian Guys Are Eating," later truncated to today’s version of that name. In 1972, according to the home of the "Real Italian," Amato’s new owner, Domenic Reali, turned the Italian sandwich into what we know today as the Maine Italian.
Now these three changes are what make up the difference between our Italian and all of those sandwiches listed back in paragraph four. They’re worth itemizing:
1) Greek olives were chosen over regular black olives. This gives the sandwich more of a salty, briny, slightly bitter taste than those you get down south.
2) Sour pickles were added to the mix. Not dill ones, but real sour pickles. Again, this makes the sandwich much more piquant, and bolder.
3) Blended oil is poured on top just before wrapping. This makes a kind of a dressing with the vinegar in the pickle brine, allowing the maker to forgo the separate vinegar basting that is offered other places.
Of course, Amato’s is not the only place that makes the Italian. In the past week or so, I’ve tried Amato’s, Sonny’s Variety (on Congress and St. John), Anania’s (Outer Congress and Bolton), and Anthony’s Italian Kitchen (Middle Street). While sticking to the basic makeup, they have chosen to expand the definition to fit their creativity. Anania’s has gone back to the regular black olives, but lays on the pickles pretty thick. Sonny’s uses greek olives and sour pickles, but seasons with salt and pepper a bit heavier. Anthony’s puts more ham on than the others, uses black olives and chops up his pickles rather than leaving them in strips, resulting in a less messy sandwich. All use American cheese, and deliver the Italians in their tell-tale butcher’s paper wrapper held together with, preferably, a rubber band.
Thus, we have a Maine classic.
So when you’re sitting on the dock somewhere, unwrapping your gen-u-ine Italian, take a glance over at those folks from Connecticut as they bite into their lobster rolls. Give ’em a nod, and a "ya can’t get theah from heah," and take a bite of what is even more uniquely Maine than what they’re eating.
And don’t say a word about it.
Andy King can be reached at email@example.com