It was my intention to celebrate the sandwich when I started this column early last year by finding as many tasty examples as possible. The emphasis was on fringe styles, but also presenting sandwiches that were considered normal 30 years ago that now seem quaint. I have done this weekly, and periodically presented round-ups of the ones I consider best.
When Italian immigrant women arrived in the city early last century, they found the food supply to be much different from what they had known back home. Most of them came from southern Italy and hadn’t eaten that much meat — and they certainly didn’t have the mountains of ground beef they were to encounter in New York City. Anyway, these brave women shrugged their shoulders and started making giant meatballs.
Added to a sauce for spaghetti, these meatballs proved indispensable to the new cuisine, but an even more pleasing usage was on hero sandwiches. These contraptions — with their large size, quantity of ingredients, and flavor — demonstrated the opulence Italian-American food would achieve, making it one of the world’s great fusion cuisines. The hot meatball hero probably wasn’t feasible until the 1920s, when Italian bakeries began making their own, quicker version of the baguette using a yeast, rather than a sourdough, base. Seeded or unseeded, it’s still in use today.
So far we have accounted for the meatball, tomato sauce, and bread that makes up this epic sandwich. The final brick in the wall, fresh mozzarella, was a product that became ubiquitous in Italian-American cooking. In the old country, mozzarella was made with buffalo milk and tended to be more expensive. Here, with cheap cow’s milk substituted, mozzarella became an item of daily consumption. Soon almost every New Yorker, from Italy or not, was eating what became known in Hoboken as “mutz.”
My favorite meatball parm hero is found at an ancient pork store on Bleecker Street, Faicco’s Italian Specialties, a vestige of a once-thriving Village Italian presence. The sandwich ($15) is fit for Tony Soprano, fully enough for two hungry diners. The meatballs are plain and a bit herby, and you get four or five of them split so that they fit inside the loaf. The tomato sauce is piquant; the cheese mellow and only partly melted. If the weather is fine, tuck it under your arm and take it to Father Demo Square at Bleecker and Sixth Avenue. 260 Bleecker St., between Leroy and Morton streets, Greenwich Village