The Italian Cold Cut Sub
Idwal Jones' charming and accessible 1952 food memoir CHEF'S HOLIDAY describes a group of friends on a walking tour of the French countryside in a time where the concept of eating locally was not a reconstructed concept allied with movements and their attendant journals; it was a given, inextricably woven into the fabric of place. One particular meal remains seismic in its impact on my awareness. The wandering troupe stops by a village bakery one morning and buys a fresh loaf of bread which they split open and sprinkle with the local olive oil, a little vinegar and a melange of wild herb- garlic, onion, thyme- gathered from a nearby field. The loaf is wrapped in a fresh kitchen towel and packed away for lunch. My sandwich-obsessed mind snapped awake. Since then, I have never doubted that great sushi is about flavoring the rice, that a great plate of spaghetti is all about accenting the pasta and that pizza is ultimately about the crust. Somehow I had always had it backwards.
So its all about the bread. A great Italian cold cut submarine sandwich starts with the right bread, a long loaf with some substance, a consistent crumb, a bit of chew, with a nice thin, barely discernable crust, sometimes finished with a light egg wash. Commercially available sub rolls are simply too flimsy and fall apart as they absorb the oil and vinegar. They lack character. Long, heavily crusted artisanal loaves upset the balance of bite at the other extreme: too much crunch, an uneven texture, in other settings valued, but here resuting in pools of unevenly distributed oil and, well, the wrong feel in the mouth. In an oddly analogous moment, I am reminded of the Philadephia restaurant that recently marketed a cheese steak sub for fifty bucks: aged beef tenderloin, fine Italian cheese, carmelized onions and peppers and, oops, a crusty artisanal loaf. The customers rebelled, demanding the more common sub roll.
When I make an Italian cold cut sub, I lightly drizzle the bread with a little olive oil, a sprinkle of red wine vinegar and some fresh parsley and, perhaps, a little fresh oregano. I wrap it in in kitchen towel and let it sit for an hour or more.
The classic Italian sub has, as far as I have discerned, three layers of cold cuts, thinly sliced for maximum surface area and flavor. The ideal configuration includes both cured and cooked meats: prosciutto de parma or coppa, hot or sweet, depending on your disposition, a salami (genoa or Toscano) and a cooked cold cut, either prosciutto cotto, with it resonate flavors of rosemary and pepper or the more delicate mortadella, with or without pistachio.
This is decorated with roasted sweet red peppers, cured green olives or olive tapenade, thinly sliced onion, a little salt and freshly ground pepper and another dash of olive oil and vinegar. Cheese is optional. Thin slices of Asiago and a sprinkle of grated Parmesan are delightful. NEVER lettuce and tomato. Though it must be acknowledged that Molinari's in North Beach, San Francisco, uses oil-cured sundried tomatoes to great effect in their sandwiches. Saucyman superhero Mike McGriff delivered me a Renzo Special from Molinari's that sustained me through the recent San Francisco Antiquarian Book Fair: hot coppa, prosciutto and sundried tomatoes with a basil infused olive oil. Local traditions are always the best.