Italian submarine sandwich cross section

The Italian job

Which sounds better: a Maine Sub or an Italian Sub? Because maybe you could have both?


I recently spent a whole 20 minutes researching the Italian submarine sandwich. Apparently the Italian sub was invented in Portland, Maine in 1903. Wikipedia has convinced me that a baker named Giovanni Amato was encouraged by dockworkers to slice his long bread rolls and add meat, cheese and vegetables to it. The preparation section of the above linked Wikipedia article cites that “Italian sandwiches are typically prepared on a hard or soft Italian roll with the following ingredients: all thinly sliced to order meats including Danish ham, genoa salami and capicolla along with provolone, shredded lettuce, onion, oil and vinegar, cracked black pepper and dried oregano.”

The Italian sub from JP Graziano’s

After that lengthy Italian sub research, I made a trip to a well established and much loved sandwich shop in Chicago that specializes in sub style sandwiches. The number one entry on J.P. Graziano’s menu is the Italian. Hot capicola, genoa salami and mortadella make up the meat on the sandwich that is topped with sharp provolone, tomato and shredded lettuce dressed with red wine vinegar and dried oregano. All this between a 9 inch long portion of a roll from Damato’s Bakery and Subs.

The bread on these sandwiches is great. It really makes the experience. There’s just enough crunch on the outside, but the inside is still soft. There exists a fine line for bread in a cold cut sandwich with one side too soft and the other too dense or tough. If the bread is too tough, each bite requires you to exert extra bite force shoving around the sandwich fillings and you have to constantly rearrange it. Damato’s bread is just perfect for this sort of sandwich and I can see why J.P. Graziano’s values the bread to ingredients relationship so much.

“to me, every sandwich, 60% is the bread.”

Jim Graziano – CNN Travel “The secret art of a J.P. Graziano sandwich”

Obviously, J.P. Graziano’s has nailed this version of an Italian sub and I’m already looking forward to my next visit to pick up sandwiches. But first I wanted to think a bit more about how to make one at home. Read on for my version of an Italian sub you can make at home with some tweaks I made to change up the flavors a little. Or you can just stare at this gif I made of the process of making my first J.P. Graziano’s inspired Italian sub of the week.

J.P. Graziano’s slices their meat and piles it up so that the bottom roll is flipped onto the meat/cheese stack and then veggies are added. I tried to emulate that here.

My sub rolls

The rolls I make for subs is a recipe I’ve made many times with an end result of three rolls that are eleven or twelve inches long. I find this leaves you with the perfect lunch length where you can cut half for lunch or make a big one and share half or eat the whole thing if you’re feeling feisty. This bread recipe is written for those of you who have a stand mixer, but you can make it without one; you’ll just end up kneading for about 10 or 15 minutes to get a smooth, soft dough.

3 hours
Sub sandwich rolls

This is sort of a French style sandwich roll. Not too crusty but with a good chew for a sub sandwich or po-boy.

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This sub roll recipe is great for all sorts of sandwiches. Don’t just limit yourself to Italian subs. Meatballs also work very well between this roll as do any other cold cut submarine, hoagie, grinder or whatever they call long sandwiches in your neck of the woods.

The meats and stuff

For my subs, I stood at the meat counter for a few minutes while my guy sliced up some Genoa salami, mortadella and hot capicola (capocollo for Americans – also sometimes referred to as gabagool – especially on the Sopranos). I specifically tried to copy what J.P. Graziano’s uses as meat in my sandwiches. I bought some provolone, a head of iceberg lettuce and vine ripe tomatoes (that weren’t really ripe since it’s April – but good enough). Dried oregano, olive oil and red wine vinegar were already in our pantry, but I used those too.

Because this sandwich is so simple and because it’s mostly cold cuts and commonly found veggies, it’s pretty easy to recreate at home. As long as your deli meat counter at your local grocery stocks these varieties of meat, and you can find good bread, you can easily satiate any itch for an Italian sub experience.

Lily thinks that she loves Italian subs. This was the first one I made this week. Just meats/cheese, tomato and lettuce tossed in red wine vinegar and oregano.

Giardiniara

Comparison in J.P. Graziano’s and my giardiniera recipe.

J.P. Graziano’s also sells their own giardiniara and it is really good. I bought some of their hot variety to test against mine (mine is much less spicy). Theirs has LOTS of pickled serrano peppers in it. I added some of it to the second half of the Italian sub I ordered and it really steps things up. It does make a pretty interesting addition but it also overwhelms some of the spicy flavors of the meat choices. I think a slightly milder version melds a bit better for me.

I did a small sampling to compare theirs and my recipe (linked below) and found theirs to be super savory and seriously hot, making my version more of a mildly spicy condiment. You can see the obviously differences in color and visual differences in this comparison photo. J.P. Graziano’s hot version has a savoriness that reminds me a lot of the oil on top of a pizza, but also packed with heat. I personally really like the cauliflower and olive percentage in mine and enjoy that it’s not quite as pepper focused as some hot giardiniara versions. But there’s a place for both versions in my fridge.

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Giardiniera

This giardinara recipe is spicy but not super hot. I'd list it as between mild and medium heat. Add more pickled jalapenos (and the pickling oil) or leave them out entirely to adjust the heat level for your sandwiching experiences.

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Addition of giardiniara turns this into something a little more exciting. This is one of my earlier batches of giardiniara minus the red pepper.

Dressing

Most of the Italian subs I made used red wine vinegar mixed with oil and tossed into shredded lettuce, but on the last day and sandwich of my five day Italian sub journey I was inspired to toss my lettuce into some caesar salad dressing I made. Turns out this was a fantastic choice. Even though caesar dressing was first created in Mexico, it still seems to work well with the flavors of an Italian sandwich that was invented in Maine. The recipe below is for my caesar dressing, but store bought would obviously work well too.

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20 minutes
Caesar dressing

Great for a salad or used as the spread on a sandwich. Caesar dressing is a super garlicy and tangy sauce to dress your sandwich veggies.

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My favorite version. Caesar dressing and giardinara really bring some fun new flavors to the game. But neither addition overwhelm the flavors of the meat.

The final version was my favorite version of an Italian sub. I know some purists would be upset, but I think the giardiniara and the addition of an interesting caesar dressing for the vegetables made all the difference in the world for my at-home version.

One last pro tip for folks who read to the end: tightly wrap your sub in a piece of parchment paper or aluminum and you’ll end up with an experience much more like you get in a deli or sandwich shop. I also feel this sort of cold cut sandwich benefits from sitting wrapped up for a few minutes before eating allowing the oil and vinegar or dressing to soak into crevices in the bread and coat the meat and cheese.

If you have a great sandwich shop like J.P. Graziano’s making good Italian subs in your area, go support them. If you don’t you can use some of the tips and recipes from my experiences to make your own. Report back here and tell me how it all worked out.