The hero sandwich is one of the proudest achievements of Italian-American cooking. Taking a French baguette — which became faddish in Italian-American bakeries around 1920 — and loading it up with cold-cuts that straddled two continents produced a final product that was as American as it was Italian, though nothing like it had ever been seen in the Old Country before. There was a hot version, too, that freighted the same loaf with Neapolitan festival food such as meat cutlets, fried calamari, and eggplant parm, though the most iconic filling of all, meatballs, was itself a great Italian-American invention. The heroes were aimed at working stiffs who needed thousands of calories to fuel their back-breaking labors, while reveling in the abundance and cheapness of food in the New World. Or, alternately interpreted, you might blame huge heroes for Tony Soprano's notorious size and girth.
While Italian-American cuisine has often been snobbishly considered the unwanted stepchild of Italian gastronomy, that attitude has changed, with the cuisine undergoing a revival at expensive places like Torrisi, Lavo, and Carbone. And the humble hero sandwich has been remade, too, but has it been improved? Following find a comparison of old vs. new local heroes. Three of the sandwich shops chosen are ancient, while the other three are babies in hero years, part of a current revival on interest in the sandwich. We've chosen two heroes at each place, in most cases Italian cold cuts and meatball parm, and awarded one to ten points based on excellence. Two of the establishments only offer one of our test heroes; in those cases we've substituted another noteworthy type.
OLD: Defonte's of Brooklyn — Apulian native Nick Defonte founded this sandwich shop in 1922, located just off the waterfront in Red Hook in a neighborhood still far from fashionable. It has long served the breakfast and lunch needs of stevedores and roughnecks on the docks, and is still turning out the same humongous sandwiches today. The so-called "half sandwich" is a whopping 10 inches in length and costs $11 for the hot meatball parm, from which the mozzarella flows out the sides like a waterfall; and $12 for the cold Italian combo, which includes capicola, salami, pepperoni, and provolone, with lots of pickled red peppers. HOT HERO: 10 pts., COLD HERO: 8 pts. 379 Columbia St, Brooklyn, (718) 625-8052
NEW: Meat Hook Sandwich Shop — This Williamsburg upstart presents a thoughtful reconsideration of the classic hero, producing overstuffed sandwiches that sometimes have odd fillings, showcasing the output of the associated butcher shop down the hill. There's a fairly doctrinaire cold Italian hero, filled with pepperoni, olive loaf, soppressata, peppers, onions, and dressing, for $12. The thing is approximately 7 inches in length, shorter than classic sandwiches by three inches — a general characteristic of the newfangled revamps. Which means you can probably finish one all by yourself. Since Meat Hook eschews the meatball hero, we've selected a suitable counterpart: the hot pig face hero ($13), matching the porcine visage with broccoli rabe and mozzarella, very much in an Italian-American vein. HOT HERO: 9 pts., COLD HERO: 8 pts. 495 Lorimer St, Brooklyn, (718) 302-HOOK
OLD: Faicco's Italian Specialties — This West Village pork store has been around since 1900, and makes heroes at the rear of the store; people line up for them at lunchtime. The original sandwich menu was all cold cuts, but a couple of years ago hot sandwiches were added, and the roster has been expanding ever since. The hefty heroes are 10 inches in length, and deploy wonderful mozzarella made daily in-store. At $10 the meatball parm is a bargain (share it with a friend), and the Italian special ($12) features prosciutto, "cappy" ham, soppressata made at Faicco's in Dyker Heights, mozzarella, and either red peppers or — a more recent interpolation — marinated sundried tomatoes. The entirety is hosed with olive oil and vinegar. HOT HERO: 9 pts., COLD HERO: 9 pts. 260 Bleecker St, (212) 243-1974
NEW: Parm — A modern lunch counter with a retro setting, and part of the Torrisi empire, Parm makes heroes for carryout, including an Italian combo ($12) that features mortadella, spicy salami, and boiled ham, and a meatball parm wherein the meatball component is almost a burger, doused with a sprightly tomato sauce that tastes marvelously fresh and modern. Sadly, they come, not wrapped in butcher's paper or foil, but jammed into plastic carryout containers, which tend to steam the bread in the case of the hot sandwich. HOT HERO: 9 pts., COLD HERO: 7 pts. 248 Mulberry St, (212) 993-7189
OLD: Fiore's House of Quality — Italian grocery store Fiore's has been located on a Hoboken side street since 1913, just before the dawn of the hero age. There is one hot sandwich special offered per day, and other than that, you must freestyle with your hero from a glass case filled with cured meats, and another that has pickled entities like peppers and artichokes. I asked the sandwich guy to make a cold-cut hero with prosciutto and the homemade capicola, a southern Italian neck-meat ham, and the shop's famous homemade "mutz." As a substitute for the usual meatball parm, the daily special of hot corned beef with mozzarella and mustard was ordered, a brilliant fusion of German, Irish, and Italian ingredients, occasioned by three great cultures of Hoboken. The sandwich is made with a policastro loaf (dense and yellowish) from a nearby bakery. HOT HERO: 9 pts., COLD HERO: 7 pts. 414 Adams St, Hoboken, NJ, (201) 659-1655
NEW: Roberta's Pizza and Bakery — The new carryout operation (there's an outdoor seating area down the block) traipses from pizzas to pastries to donuts to fried chicken to oven-roasted vegetables to Italian heroes. The bread in the heroes is especially good, and there's a devil-may-care component to these sandwiches, which means the tomato sauce in the 7-inch meatball hero ($12) will be zesty, and the sandwich wows you with two kinds of cheese. Alas, our hero roll was overtoasted, and the meatballs softer than you might like. The Italian combo, loaded with prosciutto, soppressata, mortadella, stracciatello, roasted red peppers, onions, and pepperoncini, is the sole of piquancy, and one of the best of the new crop. Burned or not, the wood oven confers advantage upon both heroes. HOT HERO: 8 pts., COLD HERO: 10 Pts. 261 Moore St, Brooklyn, 718-417-1118
So how did the young'uns stack up against the oldsters?
HOT HEROES: 28 pts.
COLD HEROES: 24 pts.
TOTAL: 52 pts. of 60 pts.
HOT HEROES: 26 pts.
COLD HEROES: 25 pts.
TOTAL: 51 pts. of 60 pts.
The Old Guard wins by a whisker!