The Regional Italian and Submarine Sandwiches of America: New England and New York

“Subway—it’s..it’s fine. I mean, it’s Subway.  It was open.”

~Rejected slogan for Subway

sub sammich

For nearly a century, the Americanized Italian sandwich has played a pivotal role in filling our bellies efficiently and deliciously.  Cold cuts, cheese, lettuce, onion, and tomato, all shoved into a sliced loaf of Italian bread and drizzled with oil and seasoning, has long been the default, “I don’t know what I feel like for lunch, eh, I’ll just get a sandwich” lunch choice for generations of workers.

Widely known as the Submarine Sandwich, it goes by about 17 different names in different regions throughout America, with dozens of additional variants from people who want hot sandwiches or beef doused in it’s own juices in elongated sandwich form.  While many long roll sandwiches end to differ in name only (subs, meet hoagies, you are the same), others are radically different and even manage the eschew cold cuts entirely, but all are delicious and American.  So instead of awkwardly stumbling through the history of the “submarine, or, uh, grinder, or, uh…” sandwich, we’re going to look into each type of this classic meat delivery system in the hopes that, that by showing our differences, we can bring our nation together.  By spending some 11,000 words talking about sandwiches that are shoved into Italian bread or rolls over the course of four articles.  We’ve got a lot of ground to cover, over 25 types of sandwiches total, but first, let’s start from the beginning.

The Regional Italian and Submarine Sandwiches of America:  New England and New York

sangwitch

The concept of taking a long piece of bread and filling it with cold cuts (and, eventually, other meats), lettuce, and tomatoes and making something universally wonderful first came to us from the East Coast, and so it’s the East Coast where we begin our sandwiches-on-long-rolls-but-really-most-of-these-are-just-subs journey.

While Jared’s weight loss regimen might be more responsible for the increasing universality of the term “Submarine,” the concept of taking a filling a roll with meat, cheese, vegetables, condiments and seasonings is not only delicious, but has been developed independently at different locations throughout the nation.  The fact that a sub is the same as a hoagie doesn’t matter, because both were developed separately of each other, which fucking blows our minds.  That’d be like two people inventing the telephone at the same time, or Gisele Bundchen having a twin sister.  But not only did it happen, it’s happened time and time again across this great nation, which is why there are over a dozen variations of the Submarine sandwich, all of which are delicious.  But first, we’ll start with the sandwich that (probably) started it all.

The Italian Sandwich  (Maine)

italian sandwich

Known as “Italians” to the residents of Maine, the Italian sandwich first made its mark in Portland, Maine during the beginning of the 20th century.  Giovanni Amato, an Italian immigrant, would sell fresh baked rolls of bread to fellow Italian immigrants working the docks when he started adding meat, cheese, and vegetables to create the first “Italian.”  By 1902, the Italian sandwich had taken it’s more basic form—the only additions to the basic sandwich came in 1972 when Amato’s was bought by Dominic Reali, who added Greek olives and a sour pickle to the recipe, but otherwise it has stayed roughly the same for over a hundred years.  A standard Italian takes a soft 12 inch roll of bread, sliced 2/3 deep like a hot dog, at which point it is stuffed with ham (originally the recipe called for salami, which is still viewed as acceptable), American Cheese, onions, bell peppers, tomato slices, olives, and either dill or sour pickles.  The sandwich is then drizzled with oil and dusted with salt and pepper.

This was the first real submarine-type sandwich recorded in America, and while no one seems to think it actively influenced other variations of the sandwich, it at the very least established that there is something primal and raw inside each and every American that makes them want to cut open a long phallic loaf of bread and stuff it with our meat and sauces.  Wait.

Uh.

Let’s move on.

The Submarine Sandwich (Every State That Has a Subway, Originally From Boston, Connecticut, New Jersey or, Fuck, Maybe Even New York?  Probably Not New York, Though)

submarine

We all have a general, albeit fluid, idea of what a submarine sandwich is.  You take a 12 inch loaf of bread (crispy on the outside, soft on the inside) you slice it, and you fill it with various meats and cheeses while trying to suppress the instinctive urge to giggle at the term “fill it with various meats.”  There are literally hundreds of possible combinations all across America, though there is some debate amongst people who debate things that don’t ultimately matter on if a “hot” submarine sandwich can still be called a sub.

However, discussing who invented the sub proves to be much more difficult, as there are more explanations for the origin of the submarine sandwich than there are excuses to your wife for how that lipstick got on your collar (also, this could easily have been avoided if you’d gone out of your way to choose a mistress who doesn’t think gnawing on your fucking shirt is sexy).  Every single theory centers around the fact that people thought that the bread looks like a submarine, which is probably true if you have a very nebulous idea of what a submarine looks like and you squint hard enough (it also probably helps to paint the bread black first).

One popular theory states that the “submarine sandwich” was created by Benedetto Capaldo, a local restaurateur who served the U.S. Naval Base in New London, Connecticut during World War II.  He originally called his salami, onion, tomato, and cheese sandwich a “grinder” but changed the name to submarine when the sub yard started ordering 500 sandwiches a day.  This one is the least likely to be true, since submarine sandwiches were being advertised in print as early as 1940.

As a result, Boston’s similar World War II claim (“at the beginning of the war, a sandwich using smaller, specially baked baguette that resembled the hull of submarines was made to entice the servicemen stationed at Charlestown Navy Yard) is unrealistic.  The most probable story involves Dominic Conti, an Italian immigrant who moved to New York at the turn of the century.  His relatives claim that Conti started selling traditional Italian sandwiches of his own recipe in his grocery store in Paterson, New Jersey in 1910.  Eight years later, he saw a recovered sunken submarine called Fenian Ram in the Paterson Museum, and decided to name his sandwiches after that.

Of course, it’s also possible that submarine sandwiches were a version of Italian sandwiches that came to New York through immigration at the turn of the century, and that the handful of owners who decided to call it a “submarine” just happened to make better sandwiches, so the name began to stick.  But we should point out that part of the reason why “subs” is the most widely used term for Italian sandwiches is largely through the national popularity of Subway, which opened in Connecticut.  So even if Benedetto Capaldo didn’t invent the sub, we can safely say he popularized it in Connecticut, and that was probably one of the main reasons why we eat at Subway when we’re looking for fast food that’s not McDonald’s during a road trip, as opposed to, say, “Hoagie Hut” or “Grinder Grid.”

(Also, if no one has copyrighted the names “Hoagie Hut” or “Grinder Grid” for sandwich shops, we call dibs.)

The Hero (New York)

hero

The difference between a hero and a sub is that one time in the 1930’s, a New York food writer made a joke about the sandwich being so big that “you’d have to be a hero to eat it all” so New York decided they’d better go with that name instead of something first coined in Connecticut or, worse yet, Jersey.  They’re literally the only people that exclusively call sandwiches “heroes” because they can’t stand that things are invented outside of New York.  The only slight difference is that heroes can come in hot varieties (which only matters if you’re in the “sub sandwiches can only be cold” camp) such as eggplant or chicken Parmesan.  But otherwise, you’re just adding an extra letter to “sub” and comparing Superman with a pile of cured meats you’re going to poop out tomorrow.

Oh, and some also claim that it’s named after the “gyro,” which is a Greek meat dish served in pita that wasn’t introduced to America until the mid 1960s, where it first showed up in Chicago, which is pronounced to sort of sounds like “hero” if you want us to hate you.  We’ll let that “hero sounds like gyro” concept settle in for a bit.

Just keep thinking about it.

Anyway, you can understand why we’d respond to anyone declaring, “Heroes might have been named after the gyro sandwich” with a simple, shut up, you’re stupid, we hate you, are you even listening to yourself, oh god, just shut up right the fuck now.

Bombers (Buffalo, New York)

bombers

Full disclosure, finding information bombers is the most horrendously frustrating thing we’ve done in a long time, and we recently did a drinking game where you take five shots of whiskey and you can’t go home until you successfully solve a Rubik’s Cube.  It’s listed in the dictionary as a synonym of a submarine sandwich, we’ve seen it used to describe (generally meaty, warm) sandwiches in Massachusetts and Wisconsin, and according to one survey, it’s only used in central Texas, but no, New York has to have its greedy little mitts on every fucking sandwich origin story they can plausibly get away with.  Which is why you can see a “steak bomb” listed as a type of warm submarine in New England, while most of the faint whispers you can find say that it originated in and around Buffalo.  Not that it’s a common term used in Buffalo.  We reached out to one of our readers in the Buffalo area via twitter direct message to see if he could give us the history of bombers, and this is all we got.

bombers text

So yeah, fuck you, bombers.  You can find the odd “Buffalo Bomber Sandwich” scattered throughout the nation, which amounts to warm subs with buffalo chicken as the primary ingredient, you can see Man Vs. Food take down an Italian Sausage Bomber in nearby Rochester (which is actually not a sub sandwich at all) but at the end of the day, the bomber seems to be an obscure, rapidly-fading-from-our-lexicon term for submarine sandwiches that New York probably put out into the void just so we could spend more time researching this sandwich and coming up with colorful invectives than we spent researching any other entry in this goddamn list.  This is New York’s way of punishing us for talking so much shit about the state this article, and we understand that.  But also, fuck you and your bombers, Buffalo.

Torpedo (Possibly New York or New Jersey But Jesus Christ, We Honestly Have No Clue)

torpedo

Oh God, this is almost as bad as bombers.  Which makes sense, we suppose, given that they’re both terms for sandwiches that makes Google think you’re interested in war (not to say we’re not).  Anyway, the fuck if we’ll be able to find out the origin of this term apart from, “Well, a Submarine shoots torpedoes, right?  So, maybe it’s like a smaller submarine?”  That’s obviously bullshit, because torpedoes are actually different from subs in that they’re longer and thinner than most subs, but it’s at least something to pretend is true so we can just try to make sense of this crazy mixed up world we live in.

This article is starting to break us.  Here’s a video of an older man making a torpedo (the sandwich not the weapon).

We at least know how a torpedo is different from a regular sub because Quiznos sells torpedoes, and actually calls them that.  Remember those?  What’s that, you don’t, because every time you’ve lived near a Quiznos it was one of your favorite quick sub chains but it would always invariably close within 18 months?  That sounds about right.  Their torpedoes prove that it’s a type of sub sandwich, and Wikipedia says that they originated in either New York or Jersey and it’s in the dictionary and everything, but apart from that there seems to be no information on how they actually came into existence.  There are advertisements for “torpedo sandwiches” (for thirteen cents) in the Evening Times of Trenton in 1940, and more references in New York in the 1950’s, and then San Diego appears to have embraced the name, but all that we know is that it’s a large submarine sandwich.  That’s long.  And possibly thinner than regular subs.

This is driving us crazy.  Literally insane.  So anyway, here’s a Quiznos commercial where an oven and a sandwich prep guy get ready to have gay sex with each other (for a second time) (the first time burned the guys penis) (no that is literally addressed in the fucking commercial) (just click the link and watch it and see for yourself).

Tunnel (Various New England Areas, But That’s Probably Bullshit, Fuck This Game)

 tunnel

Oh this is some bullshit.  Fuck all of this.  Wikipedia lists this as an actual submarine sandwich, but the rest of the collective internet seems to disagree.  We actually found a random photographer’s website from Tacoma, Washington that showed a “meatball tunnel” that has that name because the bread isn’t cut, it’s just hollowed out and filled with meatballs.  Okay, sure, hollowed out like a tunnel, that sounds like an acceptable enough explan… oh but here’s a “Brooklyn Meatball Tunnel” that doesn’t do any of that shit.  Why did we force ourselves to write about every damn sandwich!?  This is why we’re no longer allowed to accept article pitches while drunk.  We reiterate, fuck this shit.

Spiedies (Greater Binghamton, New York)

spiedies

Thank God, finally, we’re back to sandwiches that exist on the internet again.  Here we see the only entry (God, we hope) that is named after someone horribly misspelling the nickname of Spiderman (what’s that?  It actually named after the Italian word spiedo, which means spit, or possibly spiedini , which refers to cubes or balls of meat cooked on a skewer?  Eh, we like our explanation better).  The Spiedie, apart from being a word we will never spell correctly on our first try, is a submarine sandwich seen in the Southern Tier of New York that is somewhat broadly enjoyed throughout Central New York that consists of grilled cubes of meat that has been marinated overnight (usually between 24 hours and two weeks) served in a either a submarine roll or soft Italian bread.  It can be stuffed with pork, lamb, veal, venison, or beef, but since 1987 the most popular has been chicken.

The sandwich is simple, and takes the hearty American stance of “Fuck yo vegetables, just gimme meat.”  Meat cubes are marinated and then grilled on a spit, which is then directly transferred to the bun by holding onto the meat with the bread and sliding out the skewer.   Recipes for the marinade vary, but tend to utilize olive oil, vinegar, Italian spices, and mint.  Though the origin of the spiedie is disputed, it’s thought to have been brought to New York by Italian immigrants in the 1920’s, but it wasn’t until 1939 that you could find them popularized after Camillo Iacovelli started selling spiedie’s (which, yes, is pronounced “spideys”) at his restaurant “Augie’s.”

Spiedies, which at the time primarily used lamb for meat, grew in popularity regionally throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, becoming especially popular with hunters who would switch the lamb with venison, and by 1975, Rob Salamida began bottling the sauce used for marinade and selling it.

Though you won’t likely find the spiedie often outside of the state of New York, it does have a fair amount of regional fame.  Hell, Binghampton even hosts an annual Spiedie Fest and Balloon Rally (wait, balloon rally?  Uh, okay) that randomly had LeAnn Rimes perform in 2013 and an Elvis balloon.  Has LeAnn Rimes sang for any of your favorite sandwiches?  Have you even seen an Elvis balloon?  We didn’t think so.  Face.

The Wedge (Yonkers, New York)

the wedge

The wedge originated in Yonkers, and you really won’t see it outside of Westchester County aside from the occasional reference in The Bronz, Putnam County, or Upstate New York.   While just about everyone hearing about a “wedge sandwich” is envisioning one of those cheap sliced up ham and cheese sandwiches on regular bread you can see goading you into developing food poisoning at a 7-Eleven or gas station, in Yonkers it’s used to describe a sub sandwich where the bread is cut into two halves length-wise, with the meat, cheese, and other ingredients between the two halves.  It’s said to have originated in 1930, when Antonio Landi, owner of Landi’s Deli, added the sandwich to his menu.  He named it a “wedge” because it was a shortened form of how his wife pronounced “sandwich.”  Just to be clear, yes, that means that this man’s wife, who as far as we can tell was a grown human female, pronounced the word “sandwich” as “san-wedge.”  We’re being serious here when we ask, was enunciation something that was just invented in the 50s?  Believe us when we tell you that this is not the last time you’re going to see a sandwich that got its name because people didn’t know how to say basic fucking words.

Some make the claim that “it’s just served between two wedges of bread” but that’s almost dumber.  Almost.  Those aren’t wedges, they are sandwich halves.  And now we all know that your wife says “sandwich” super weird.  San-wedge.  Jesus fucking Christ.

Grinders (New England, Especially Western New England)

 grinders

There are two theories for why New Englanders (except for New “fuck you, we’re calling it a hero because of a mediocre joke that’s older than our parents” Yorkers) call their sandwiches grinders.  Both are stupid.  One is that “grinder” was an Italian-American slang for a dock worker, who preferred the sandwiches.  The other is that, since the bread has a hard crust, you have to grind your teeth to chew it.  Basically, the only thing that we’ve established so far is that, in the early 20th century, the East Coast named their food items for pretty dumb reasons.  “Oh, when I chew on this hunk of meat, I produce a lot of saliva, so I will call this sandwich a SALIVARY STEAK and you have some backed up earwax, so you’ll hear it as SALISBURY STEAK okay that’s the name we’ll never change it!”  Fuck you.

(Granted, the Salisbury steak was named after an American physician, but if someone told us our bullshit explanation up there, at this point, we’d be forced to believe them, no matter how stupid it sounds.)

Some places say that grinders are cold, while western Massachusetts uses the word to specifically describe a toasted sub.  Some use “grinder” to describe the cold varieties, while calling hot ones “oven grinders.”  Some might say that we should have separate entries for “grinders” and “oven grinders” since there seems to be more regional differentiation between the basic definition of what a grinder is, to which we say, fuck that, we’re mushing them both into this entry.  Things can be two things, you know.

THINGS CAN BE TWO THINGS DAMMIT!

Ahem.  Sorry, lost our composure there.  Anyway, grinders are also pretty much just subs.  Yay us.  Moving on.

Spuckies (Boston) 

spukies

There’s nothing particularly noteworthy about the Spuckie that differentiates it from a submarine sandwich.  Like a hero, it’s a basically a sub sandwich that some people refer to with a different name.  In this case, old Italian immigrants living in certain Boston neighborhoods call sandwiches spuckies (or spuckys), most likely because it’s short for “spuccadella,” a particular kind of Italian roll.  The only slight differentiation between a spuckie and a sub is that, traditionally, spuckie rolls were more pointed at the ends, but come on, it’s just an Italian sub that you’ll find at Boston shops that are run by really old Italian dudes.  So, given that only a few neighborhoods in the city refer to it as such, and knowing how Boston is, we’d not really recommend you go around saying, “Eyyy, I’m workin’ here, ya babaganoosh, hows about you get me a spuckie whiles yous at it?” if you find yourself in the area any time soon.  Or actually, do it.  If you’re impulse is to go around like a caricature of wherever you visit, you deserve to find out what’ll happen to you the hard way.

Blimpie (Hoboken, New Jersey)

blimpie

And we end our foray into New England’s sometimes frustrating (fuck you so hard, bombers, tunnels and torpedoes) Italian sandwiches (excluding Pennsylvania, we’ll get to them later this week).  And what better way to send that off than a fast food chain that actually calls themselves a submarine sandwich anyway and is only added here because Wikipedia told us it’s a separate name for a sub, so apparently we have to include it no matter how stupid, ugly and unloved it is (*glares at bombers and tunnels and torpedoes*).  Oh, sorry, Blimpie, we’re not talking about you there, we don’t mean that (*glares at bombers and tunnels and torpedoes, does ‘slit throat’ gesture with thumb*).

Blimpie first opened in 1964 in Hoboken, so there’s a chance people there call all sub sandwiches Blimpies?  Probably not, though.  Hey, Hoboken readers, if we went up to you and asked where we could get the best Blimpie, would you just be confused ‘cause we were asking what’s the best location of a fast food chain?  Probably, right?

Now, according to the company website, Blimpie was found by Tony Conza, Peter DeCarlo, and Angelo Baldassare who decided on the name “Blimpie” after going through a dictionary before seeing a picture of a blimp and saying, “Huh, that kind of looks like the sandwiches we sell!” because, again, apparently 50% of naming sandwiches is not having a particularly strong grasp on perception or shapes (the other 50% is not knowing how to pronounce goddamn words).

But surprise!  The truth is far more embarrassing, at least according to this New York Times article that says that Tony Conza decided on “blimp” because he thought it sounded like a sandwich.  So, hey, there’s the other 50%.  What kind of crossed mental wires lead to making that connection?  “What’s that?  Blimp?  YOU MEAN A TYPE OF SANDWICH!?”  Though that probably explains why his dog is named “fork,” his children are named “carbine” and “asparagus,” and why he calls the roof of his house a “sky shield.”

Otherwise, Blimpie is a decently standard sub offering, though for some Americans Blimpie was their first exposure to sub sandwiches that have oil on them instead of mayo, so that’s something to tip your hat to at the very least.

And hell, this is going to be more exhausting than we originally anticipated.  With that, we have a shitload of sandwiches to eat, but afterwards, we’ll run you through the various submarine sandwiches of Philadelphia (and the various people who will send us hate mail for daring to claim that a hoagie has anything in common with a sub sandwich).  Until then, enjoy your subs, your heroes, your grinders.  And if you find any bombers, tunnels, or torpedoes you can tell them to go to hell, courtesy of America Fun Fact of the Day.  We’re still bitter.

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10 responses to “The Regional Italian and Submarine Sandwiches of America: New England and New York

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  5. Hey, numb nut ” to see a sandwich that got its name because people didn’t know how to say basic fucking words.”
    Is an amazingly stupid fucking statement. Did you ever hear of immigrants? English as a second language? I’d love to hear you try to say “Sfogliatella” correctly in Italy, moron.

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