By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2008 Gourmet Magazine
Thank the aquifer below the New Jersey Pinelands for the best submarine sandwich on earth. Its pure water—the pH lowered by the cedars growing above it—is what makes the bread on which the sub is built so precisely right. “It’s the softest, cleanest water anywhere,” explains Frank Formica. “The water is so uncontaminated you can use more flour and the bread has more body. Formica Bros. Bakery mixes Pinelands water with brewer’s yeast and flour, then proofs the dough three times before baking. The result is a loaf with a sturdy crumb and a firm crust. The flavor is a perfect foil for the cotechino, capicola, Genoa salami, provolone, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, hot peppers, and oil that comprise the famous sub made on the other side of Arctic Avenue, at White House Sub Shop. Formica (pronounced “Formeeca”) delivers its bread to the sandwich shop at least six times a day, which means that each loaf is only hours from the oven (and sometimes still warm) when a White House sandwich maker halves it horizontally and decks it with ingredients.
Bread plays second fiddle in many worthy sandwiches—grilled cheese, PB&J, hot turkey—but it ’s paramount in a cold-cuts sub. It has to be strong enough not to disintegrate, and it must pack enough yeasty character to cushion the meat’s zest, but there should still be a certain modesty to its presence. Bread so big-flavored that it interferes with the harmony of the other ingredients would be wrong. A sub roll’s role is a supporting one, but quality is vital; there is no such thing as a first-rate sub on second-rate bread.
The Formica family has perfected the formula since Grandpa Francesco and his wife, Rosa, opened their resort-town bakery in 1919, but Frank says the recipe includes variations that account for heat and humidity. “You cannot cook by a clock,” he says. “Bread is a living thing. You have to touch it and connect with it, like each dough is an individual. People ask me, ‘When does the bread go in the oven?’ I answer, ‘When it wants to go.’”
Today Formica Bros. produces a panoply of traditional breads (ciabattas, St. Joseph’s loaves) and artisan rolls (cranberry walnut raisin), as well as biscotti and tomato pie from Rosa’s original recipes. The storefront café is a fine place to go to drink coffee and eat cannoli while surrounded by shelves of fragrant baked goods that come out of the ovens all day long. Among the breads is a sheaf of fresh sub rolls—pale gold 20-inch torpedoes that sell for a dollar each.
For years we believed the often-repeated tale that Tony Basile, who opened the White House Sub Shop after his discharge from the army, in 1946, coined the term “submarine sandwich” to honor the sailors in the silent service. The explanation seemed logical given the obvious fact that the roll on which the sandwich is made is submarine-shaped. “Wrong!” says Tom La Rocca, a White House employee for some 50 years, who was eager to disabuse us of the misunderstanding. “Atlantic City said ‘submarine’ long before this place opened,” he maintains. “What we use for the sandwich is called a sub because it is not a full-size bread. It is sub-sized, like a subcompact car. Before the sandwich existed, Formica sold sub bread to customers who wanted a small loaf.”
The sub has plenty of crazy aliases (grinder, bomber, hoagie, blimp, zep, wedge) and countless cognates around the nation (from the Key West Cuban to Southern California’s French dip). Most issues of origin and taxonomy are up for grabs, but these two things are certain: The tubular, multi-ingredient hero is at its best in the greater Delaware Valley, and those made at the White House are the paradigm.
In addition to the bread, the cold cuts procured from Philadelphia, and (in summer) the Jersey tomatoes, there’s one other element that makes White House subs so good: the art of sandwich building. This is a simple kitchen task, like roasting a chicken or cooking an omelet, that can be done pretty well by almost anybody but produces something transcendent when undertaken by a master. “You want the whole thing filled, end to end,” explains Brian Conley, whose in-laws were Tony Basile’s partners. “You know how bad it is when you are at the end of a sub and suddenly there’s no meat, or the tomato is gone, and you’ve got nothing but bread?” He shudders at the thought. “The sandwich maker has to know what he ’s doing to get all the pieces in there, nice and symmetrical; and you pray for cooperative lettuce—not too flat, with a crunch, but not too wavy, either.”
If you sit at the short counter or wait in line for a submarine to go, you can see the half-dozen White House sandwich makers at work—a scene that mustn’t be missed. Although waitress service is available at the nine little booths inside, most business is to-go, the line for which frequently snakes far out the door. Once you get close to the counter, you have a spectacular view of cold-cuts choreography in action.
For all the precision Conley requires, the men who slice the bread and array the cold cuts work in a voluble fugue state, chattering among themselves and to customers as they slice and reach and grab around each other in a free-form ballet of bread and meat and cheese. When making a regular sub or a special (like a regular, but double-stuffed), they use the backs of their big knives to fold the ingredients, transforming them into a serpentine pile—rather than a dense stack—that allows the unctuous luxury of the cotechino and the zest of the capicola to swirl together in the interstices and the juice from the hot peppers and the obligatory spritz of oil to seep in.
The imperturbable expertise of the staff contributes to a virile ambience that is quintessential Mid-Atlantic sandwich-shop or pizza-parlor cheap eats. Wall décor includes hordes of celebrity-clientele pictures, a towel used by Frank Sinatra during his last Atlantic City show, and the unequivocal affirmation that this place is not affiliated with any other sandwich shop “in this area or any other area in the world.” Other than necessary repairs and refurbishment, nothing about the White House Sub Shop is different from the way it was a half century ago. “Atlantic City has changed,” Conley says, “but certain things in life you want to stay the same. Like where you buy your sub.”
Formica Bros. Bakery