There are cold heroes and then there are hot heroes. Which is better? Well, neither, and the current stretch between summer and winter is a time when you can enjoy both.
You may wonder where the hero came from. Certainly, there’s no bread like that in Italy. In fact, baguettes were introduced into the U.S. from France around a century ago, and every Italian American bakery started making them. Meanwhile, Italian immigrants who arrived here about the same time learned that meats and cheeses were way more available and cheap here than they were in the old country. Is that how the super-size sandwich was born? Disagree if you want — that’s my theory.
And here are 10 heroes, five hot and five cold, that I love the best. Well, at least for the moment.
Faicco’s Italian hero
Of all the wonderful heroes made at Faicco’s, two with cold cuts stand out. One, the Italian hero, comes piled high with prosciutto, capicola, and soppressata, an Apulian large-bore salami made at the Faicco’s branch in Dyker Heights. The other hero, called the American, is filled with boiled ham, roast beef, turkey, and American cheese. Both are great in their own way and constitute a chronicle of Italian immigration. 260 Bleecker Street, at Cornelia Street, Greenwich Village
Lioni’s Mario Lanza (#10)
Lioni’s, hidden away in a residential corner of Bensonhurst, is one of Brooklyn’s most venerable hero shops, with a menu of over 150 configurations, many named after Italian-Americans. The Mario Lanza illustrates how a hero doesn’t have to be complicated to be great. This one depends on the interplay of salty mortadella and unsalty mozzarella — the latter made on the premises and extra creamy. 7803 15th Avenue, at 78th Street, Bensonhurst
Nick’s burner at Joe’s Deli
As with most of these heroes, the mozzarella is made on the premises at Joe’s, an anchor of the Bronx’s Belmont neighborhood. The “burner” part of the name reflects how much this sandwich owes to chile peppers, utilizing hot soppressata, hot capicola, and pickled chiles in a sharp vinaigrette. This is one hero you can’t chew your way through without feeling the burn. 685 E. 187th Street, near Cambreling Avenue, Bronx
The bomb at Sal, Kris, and Charlie’s
This one at Sal, Kris, and Charlie’s gets my vote for the absolute biggest cold hero in town, and one of the best tasting if you can manage to wrap your mouth around it. Contains salami, ham, roast beef, turkey, pepperoni, American and provolone cheeses, lettuce, onions, tomatoes, hot peppers, sweet peppers, lubricated with mayo and mustard. 33-12 23rd Avenue, near 33rd Street, Astoria
Mama’s special at Leo’s Latticini
You can depend on Leo’s having killer mozzarella, because it’s one of the city’s old-fashioned latticini, which make fresh Italian cheeses. For decades it was presided over by Nancy DeBenedettis, known as Mama, who died in 2009. Her magnificent hero features soft salami, a ham known as prosciuttini, pickled red peppers, and mozzarella (mushrooms optional), and she sprinkles on plenty of black pepper. 46-02 104th Street, at 46th Avenue, Corona
Napoli Pizzeria’s meatball Parm
The best meatball Parm subs are often found in neighborhood pizzerias, like the long-running Napoli in the South Village. The meatballs are of medium size, herby and oniony, and two split in half make a glorious sandwich smothered in gooey low-moisture mozzarella, and the bun is nicely browned. And you can depend on the tomato sauce being chunky and slightly sweet. 226 Varick Street, near Houston Street, Greenwich Village
Defonte’s potato and egg
Defonte’s is perhaps the city’s best hero shop, and its humblest sandwich is the potato and egg. This has always been the sandwich for the cash-strapped, along with its cousin, the pepper and egg. When properly salted and peppered as it is here, it is a carb and protein bomb of magnificent proportions and belly satisfying, and you’ll never walk away hungry. 379 Columbia Street, at Luquer Street, Red Hook
Johnny Roastbeef at Original John’s Deli
Perhaps the most classic of the Brooklyn hot heroes — amazing when you think of it — is rare roast beef sliced warm and layered with fresh mozzarella, smothered in brown gravy that is salty and viscous. The result is messy and inordinately delicious. Original John’s has been making hero sandwiches on this corner of Gravesend on the way to Coney Island since 1968. 2033 Stillwell Avenue, at 86th Street, Gravesend
Casa Calamari’s broccoli rabe
Who says a hot hero can’t be vegan? This sandwich highlights some very garlicky and well-oiled broccoli rabe, whose subtle bitterness and saltiness combine to make one of the most interesting and tasty heroes I’ve ever encountered. And long-running Bay Ridge Italian restaurant Leo’s Casa Calamari is the only place I know to get it. 8502 Third Avenue, near 85th Street, Bay Ridge
Eggplant Parm from Jimmy’s Famous Heroes
Eggplant parm is a classic hot hero, but one rarely made well. Sometimes the vegetable is oversaturated with fat, other times it’s raw in the middle. Jimmy’s eggplant is perfectly cooked and the mozzarella and tomato sauce keep pace. 1786 Sheepshead Bay Road, at Bay Court, Sheepshead Bay