By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2005 Gourmet Magazine
We love hoagies, heroes, grinders, blimps, zepps, wedges, po’ boys, and submarines. But until recently, we were ignorant of one of the genre’s best regional variants, the Italian, which was invented in Portland, Maine. We’d never run across this Down East sandwich because Italians tend to be served in places people don’t usually go to eat. They are a specialty of convenience stores, delis, and butcher’s counters in groceries, where they are made to order, wrapped, and carried out. We have never seen one listed on a sit-down restaurant menu. It was a letter from Italian loyalist Bettie Shea, describing its “marvelous taste and texture,” that diverted us from our usual Portland chowder diet to go hunting for a real Italian.
To call it a “real” Italian is not adjectival whimsy; those who make them distinguish between real and regular Italians, not to mention double and triple Italians and veggie Italians. The origin of the real Italian goes back to 1902, when dockworkers persuaded Portland baker Giovanni Amato to split his long loaves of bread and pile each open loaf with meat, cheese, and vegetables. The Italian he designed is built in such a way that it is forbiddingly messy if not impossible to fold over into a customary torpedo shape once the sandwich has been constructed. Slices of meat and cheese span both halves of the loaf, as do thick slices of firm tomato and green bell pepper. Once meat, cheese, tomatoes, peppers, pickles, onions, and olives are all spread out, the Italian is spritzed with a significant amount of olive oil, which makes even tilting it a precarious event. An Italian is wrapped splayed open in plenty of butcher paper; when it is unwrapped, the inner layers of the paper will be soaked with oil and freckled with black pepper. So, while technically speaking an Italian is a sandwich—if sandwich means something enveloped by bread—it’s not surprising to find Portland deli menus that list Italians separately from cold and hot sandwiches.
Amato’s unwieldy creation was a hit among dockworkers, and the Italians he sold soon became known to Portlanders beyond the waterfront, and especially to those who came to summer in homes on the nearby shore. We spoke to a few people whose families spent vacations in the vicinity midcentury, and they have fond memories of visiting the old Amato’s on India Street to pick up Italians for beachside picnics and lawn parties. Bringing the sandwiches back home became a ritual—as much a part of local life as going out for ice cream.
The original sandwich was very much an Italian-American creation, anchored by boiled ham and bright orange American cheese. Amato’s formula was altered in the 1970s by the sandwich shop’s new owner, Dominic Reali, who switched out black olives in favor of full-flavored Greeks, added a zestier pickle, and infused the oil with spices. Today, Amato’s (which has become a local chain) uses ham in its real Italian, but at nearby Colucci’s Hilltop Market, real Italian means salami and provolone; if you want the original formula of ham and American cheese, you ask for a regular Italian.
There is no place to eat in this family-run market; any meal you get is take-out. From the outside, it looks like any other corner grocery, its sign advertising “Meats—Produce—Groceries—Lottery—Tickets—Ice—Deli.” Inside, shelves are stocked with a bicultural array of groceries that includes Twinkies and imported olive oil. We originally came to Colucci’s because the staff at much-loved Marcy’s Diner (home of the world’s best chili cheese omelet) advised us that the real Italian made here was the one to eat.
As proprietor Dick Colucci expertly assembles one, he tells us that this place has been a source of Italians since the end of World War II, and that the big issue among those who make them is not lunch meat or seasoning but bread. “A good, fresh roll is the key,” he says, reeling off the names of bakeries known for making the long buns used for Italians. (Indeed, the staff at Marcy’s—where Italian toast is the recommended breadstuff to accompany the omelet—told us that for the best possible Italian, we should buy bread from Amato’s Bakery and get the ingredients at Micucci Grocery, a vintage market just down the street from the original Amato’s location, then assemble it ourselves.)
Colucci says that he sees a spike in Italian sales in the summer, when visitors to the Maine coast come in for a take-out treat that isn’t made in any other part of the country. “We get people from Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and even New Jersey,” he says. It’s no secret that these are all states with exalted sub sandwich traditions of their own, and it occurs to us when we bite into Colucci’s Italian off the tailgate of our car, trying valiantly to keep ingredients from spilling out onto Congress Street, that Portland’s version is the most anomalous variation on the theme.
The uniqueness of the Italian is not owed to the meats and cheeses, which are commonplace, but to the toppings and the bread. The spiced oil that covers the olives and vegetables gives the upper layer a brilliant sparkle. And the bread below, completely unlike the muscular, chewy lengths typical of mid-Atlantic sub sandwiches, is tender and light, something like a gigantic version of the split-top buns in which Yankee wieners typically are served. The layers of salami or ham and cheese form a barrier between the bread and the oily vegetables above, but once that barrier is breached (generally at first bite), the bread quickly absorbs what’s on top and loses its ability to hold anything. The experience is similar to eating a hot buttered lobster roll: Midway through, the absorbent bun has been transformed from a foundation into just one element among the stuff it originally contained. By the time you near the end of an Italian, the ingredients on the folded-open butcher paper no longer resemble a sandwich at all. They have become a deliciously messy cold-cut salad, laced with fluffy tufts of oil-sopped bread.
Colucci’s Hilltop Market