Soul Food Friday: THE Italian sandwich gets franchised!
So last Saturday I found myself in one of Vermont’s outlying areas, in other words, I wasn’t in Portsmouth or Burlington. And I was hungry — OK I was slightly hungover, but the nights are long and cold in northern New England, and if there isn’t much going on during daylight hours, there’s even less of it after 8 pm and accessing it requires at least an hour’s drive, which makes slumping against the baseboard heater in your hotel room with a fifth of Jameson’s about the only game in town as far as I can tell.
So with an hour to kill and a grumbly gut, Mr. S and I made our way to West Lebanon’s signature eatery, Maplefield’s, which sounds like a quaint inn with a fireplace and a big floppy dog, but which is in reality a gas station, albeit of the gourmet variety with tables. It was with heavy hearts that, having located it, we slopped through the door prepared to make do with a hot dog or Twinkie for brunch. Instead, I at least, found myself at the pretzel gates of culinary heaven as I lurched ecstatically toward the counter of the Amato’s franchise, located just behind the display of motor oil and windshield wiper solvent. I am not exaggerating when I say I choked up and may even have shed a tear or two.
Now, every town has a specialty sandwich. New York has pastrami on rye; Philly has the hoagie; there’s the In and Out Burger in LA; in Seattle they probably do something with salmon and coffee. You get the idea. I grew up in Portland, Maine and though my readers “from away” might be surprised to hear it, there is a large Italian American community of long standing in Maine’s largest city. Hence the Italian sandwich, our sandwich, Downeast manna: sliced ham (usually boiled and none of that gourmet pig, either), white American cheese, tomato, pickle, onions, green pepper and black olives on a long squishy white roll liberally seasoned with salt, pepper and oil (never olive, though I can’t say exactly what kind it is — could be Valvoline for all I know).
Now it used to be that you could only get that particular sandwich, just so, between Portland and Augusta, and if you moved away, there was no hope of a fix until you went back for a visit. It was OK in July, but you had to be jonesing pretty hard to travel back in February. But now it seems, the clever folks at Amato’s have started franchising and these outposts of Maine soul food are popping up everywhere!
You might say that the recipe is hardly difficult to replicate. Well, Mr. Flatlander, you could not be more wrong. No matter how hard I have tried over the years, I’ve never been able to even come close to the flavor or the experience of the Italian sandwich in a remote setting, and I’ll tell you why: It’s all about the roll. If you don’t have the roll, you might as well be eating at Katz’s deli. Yes, it’s a submarine roll, but the ones you get in Maine (and now in franchises throughout New England!) are singular: all soft and spongy, like milk bread with a microscopically thin, soft crust.
So I ordered up my usual (large regular Italian, no green peppers or olives) and tucked in with a fervor you seldom see outside religious services involving snakes and made-up languages. I did have to ask for more salt, pepper and oil, but we can excuse the sandwich makers for the oversight, as they probably lack the requisite life experience, race memory and confidence to really open the throttle on these items. Imagine if you put me behind the po’ boy takeout counter down in vampire country — I’d have no idea how to proceed. “You want an oyster sandwich? You’re sure about that? Remou-what?”
So anyways, while Mr. S. gave his vegetable omelette the business, I happily tucked in to my sandwich with all the trimmings (diet Dr Pepper and chips, though I passed on the whoopie pie out of a sense of decorum that I now see was probably misplaced given the setting and circumstances). I’d have had a second one, but was too embarrassed. Up north that’s really only something one does in private, though my friend, whom we’ll call Miss Fun, admits to eating Italian sandwiches for breakfast when she visits. I haven’t, but only because I never thought of it.
Do you have a hometown favorite you love so much you’ll even visit the family to get it? I’m all ears.