By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2004 Gourmet Magazine
EVEN CORNELL STUDENTS with scant aptitude for languages quickly become fluent in the idiom of hot truck. Spoken mostly late at night, it is a short-order patois used to describe the sandwiches served from the side of a delivery van that is parked at the edge of West Campus. When the craving strikes any time after 10 P.M., which is when The Hot Truck plugs into the lamppost for juice to power its ovens, only the greenest Cornellian would say, “Let’s go to The Hot Truck and eat sandwiches.” Proper construction is, “Let’s eat hot truck.”
Hot truck, the food, is in fact a hot submarine—baked open-face on a length of Ithaca Bakery French bread, then folded over to become a heavy sandwich. It is served in configurations with names that can seem as obscure as Navajo. Our friend Marc Bruno, a Big Red alumnus (class of ’93) who gifted us with The Hot Truck Dictionary, a reference work originally compiled by Ira Bernstein (class of ’75), told us his favorite thing to eat is a “Triple Sui, hot and heavy, G and G, liquid heat, extra wet.” That translates as a Suicide with three meatballs, a hail of hot red pepper, and an extra-heavy dose of garlic with condiments of mayonnaise, lettuce, cayenne pepper sauce, and extra tomato sauce.
To elucidate: A Suicide, or Sui (pronounced “SOO-ee,” like the pig call), got its name because it is piled with a murderous quantity of ground sausage, pepperoni, and mushroom on a bed of tomato sauce under a mound of melted mozzarella. “G and G” stands for “grease and garden,” i.e., mayo and lettuce. Stephen Rushmore, another Cornell graduate (class of ’96), who concluded his wedding day in Ithaca by taking us along with his white-gowned bride and much of the wedding party for wee-hours hot truck after a five-course formal dinner, further explained that some connoisseurs call for a high-carbon Sui. That’s the way you ask the cook to run your hot truck through the oven twice so the edges of the dense bread turn black and its crust starts to flake.
Hot truck began as the brainchild of Bob Petrillose, whose father had run Johnny’s Big Red Grill in downtown Ithaca since the end of Prohibition. In 1960, the elder Petrillose bought a pizza truck, then formally known as Pizza on Wheels, from which Bob sold whole pies and slices. Old-timers recall that it was good pizza when the pies were hot from the oven. But Bob was unhappy because most of the slices he sold were reheated, sometimes hours old and soggy. According to Albert Smith, who bought The Hot Truck in 2000 and whose son Michael now operates it, “Bob was from the old school. He believed pizza is something you serve hot enough to burn your mouth.” Few students were rich enough or hungry enough to get an entire bespoke pie each time they visited Pizza on Wheels.
Petrillose solved the problem by creating Poor Man’s Pizza (“PMP” in hot-truck lingo): sauce and cheese spread on butterflied French bread and baked in the truck’s pizza oven. Each one was made to order, served crisp and piping hot. His invention became a campus sensation. At the time there was a nearby truck that specialized in cold-cut sandwiches, and students came to know the two late-night food depots as the cold truck and the hot truck. The cold truck has since gone, but it is impossible to overstate the impression that The Hot Truck has made on 20th-century alumni, for whom it was as much a part of college life as the Bell Tower and Taughannock Falls.
Albert Smith reminded us that when The Hot Truck first rolled, Cornell’s dining facilities closed at 8:30 P.M. on weekdays, 2 P.M. on Sunday. “Where did you go if you wanted something to eat at midnight?” he asks. Petrillose is remembered for selling his hot sandwiches every night of the school year no matter what the weather. In four decades he missed exactly four days.
Additions to the fundamental pizza sub came later, in the 1960s and 1970s, and the enduring configurations were named by or for the student who concocted them. These include a current contender for immortality, the Super-slacker (garlic bread, sauce, cheese, bacon, sausage, hot pepper, and Hot Truck hot sauce). Suis, made on half a loaf of garlic bread, are frequently gilded with meatballs still made from the Petrillose family recipe. Small appetites order Half Triple Suis (one and a half meatballs on a third of a loaf). Taut-skinned lengths of sizzling sausage are an especially indulgent topping for a Sui, which already holds ground sausage. Or you can get sausage-only (with sauce and cheese) by ordering an “HSC.” A Flaming Turkey Bone, which contains no turkey and no bones and is not served on fire, is a third of a loaf piled with chicken, tomato sauce, cheese, onions, extra hot and heavy, plus “spontaneous combustion” (double-X hot sauce).
If Suicide with meatballs is your preferred way to end an evening in Ithaca, expect to stand in line up to an hour. Each one is constructed to order, then baked at a pace more suited to a sit-down restaurant than a stand-up food van.
For the first hour or two after the truck starts cooking there is a mellow camaraderie among the patient crowd and a contagious ebullience from those who receive, unwrap, and eat their sandwiches. After that, the line gets louder, looser, and more recklessly happy. By 3 A.M., with the lag still close to an hour, you can count on a few in-their-cups customers with no concept of time to sulk and mutter about the wait or fall into the condition of global despair that we’ve heard veterans call hot-truck frenzy.
There is good news for those without the patience or biological clock to allow an hour’s wait for supper at 1 A.M. Soon after the Smiths bought The Hot Truck along with its language and recipes, Michael took charge of the truck itself, but Albert began to offer the same pizza subs from his Shortstop Deli downtown. It is now possible to study hot truck 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
The Hot Truck (permanently closed)
635 Stewart Avenue
Ithaca, New York