It is my intention to celebrate the sandwich this year by finding as many tasty examples as possible, with a special emphasis on fringe styles, but also presenting sandwiches that were considered more normal 30 years ago tat now seem quaint. I will do this weekly and periodically present round-ups of the ones I consider best.
Last week in our Sandwich of the Week column, we examined the rise of the super torta, which is like a regular torta blown up with a bicycle pump, containing not one but several main ingredients stacked high on a giant round bun. Often still less than $10, it has appeared in several places around town including Tortas Neva in Corona and Don Pepe in Sunset Park.
Of course, mind-bogglingly giant sandwiches are not unique to Mexican sandwichcraft. The Italians have also been doing it for decades. In fact, there are many origin stories for the Italian hero, one of which goes all the way back to baker Giovanni Amato, of Portland, Maine in 1902. You might call him the Italian equivalent of the Earl of Sandwich. I happen to think his sandwich wasn’t very big, though, because the Italian baguette as we know it didn’t become popular here until the 1920s. My own theory is that the Italian hero didn’t become a thing until the 1950s, as Italian Americans found themselves more prosperous and Italian American fare (as seen in the neighborhood pizza parlor) became a dominant force in America.
Made from either hot ingredients that owe their origin to festival food back in the old country, or from opulent stacks of cold cuts such as might be found in a salumeria or butcher shop, these heros were a foot or more in length and often weighed more than a pound. They were Tony Soprano size, and the legendary girth of fictional mobsters was surely due in part to eating these sandwiches.
Though most heroes are based on cold cuts of either Italian or American origin — an example of the former, prosciutto, and the latter, boiled ham, with the neck meat ham called coppa falling somewhere in between — freshly made mozzarella is often a key component. Thus one of your best places to score a great cold cut hero are latticini, the places that make fresh cheese. Alas, these Italian-American institutions inspired by the abundance of cheap milk here and the ease of making ricotta and mozzarella are fast disappearing from the landscape.
One that remains in Corona, Queens is Leo’s Latticini, in its current location since the 1930s. For decades, it has also been known as Mama’s, presided over by Nancy DeBenedettis, who ran it with her three daughters, and died in 2009. The hero named after her (mama’s special, $8) is the one to get, piled high with boiled ham, soft salami, pickled red peppers, and mozzarella (mushrooms optional). The components are sprinkled with crushed black pepper and perfectly married on the demi-baguette, with a salty and garlicky zing only partly mellowed by the cheese. 46-02 104th St., at the corner of 46th Avenue, Corona