The name varies--sub, submarine, hoagie, grinder, poor boy, hero, torpedo, cosmo--but one rule remains constant: This is a sandwich that should equal more than the sum of its parts.
Too often, though, the sub (apparently the preferred title in Denver) is much less--a sad pile of limp deli meats, wilted lettuce and underripe tomatoes stuffed inside a lackluster roll soggy with cheap Italian vinaigrette. Still, hope--and hunger--springs eternal, and as the weather warmed up I found myself hankering for a truly great sandwich, the sort that would inspire picnic plans for months to come. But the sub I'm always looking for is the one like those I grew up with--not yuppified, Grey Poupon-lathered, let's-see-how-much-meat-we-can-get-on-these sandwiches, but honest-to-goodness, down-to-earth subs that treat all the components as equal partners.
Maybe sub-making is a dying art form: Out of the fifteen subs-only shops listed in the 1993-1994 phone book, only eight are still in business. Considering what I found at two of the three places I tried, I'm not surprised. But the third could singlehandedly bring the sub back to the surface.
When the voice on the other end of the phone at Tommy's Terrific Subs told me, "We're serving real Pennsylvania subs here," I thought I was being set up for a fall: My Pittsburgh instincts warned me that no one could serve a true Pennsylvania sub west of the Mississippi. But what the voice said next made me sit down. Hard. "Yeah, my husband and I are from Montoursville, and we're doing cosmos."
Cosmos: the stuff--and stuffing--of dreams. In the Fifties Bill and Joe Cellini opened one of the first sub shops in Pennsylvania. Cellini's served nothing but cold sandwiches until the day a regular customer asked if he could have cheese on a roll, toasted. Soon Bill and Joe were adding turkey, ham and the crucial ingredient--a potent potpourri of chopped peppers, oil and vinegar, all fresh. They named this first documented hot sub (ignoring the cheesesteak, which had been around since the Thirties) after their faithful customer, who went by his middle name, Cosmo. The idea was so good that it quickly caught on outside of Montoursville, but what made Cellini's cosmo legendary was the shop's commitment to only the freshest, highest-quality ingredients. That's a commitment that Cellini's current proprietor (and keeper of the cosmo story), Charlie DeSanto, is trying to re-establish after a succession of owners let the place go.
Pennsylvania may be suffering from a sub shortage, but here in Colorado, Tommy's certainly delivers on Cellini's original promise.
"I looked around for just the right kind of bread," owner Tommy Hill says. "I must have tried twenty or thirty rolls before I found the perfect one." Barely crusty on the outside, his perfect roll has a soft but sturdy interior--just right for holding slippery fillings. And from the first bite, it's obvious that Tommy and his wife, Susan, are serious about using only the best ingredients: top-grade meats, cheeses and produce--and hold the rancid oil.
A six-inch turkey cosmo ($3.60) housed a fair amount of moist, paper-thin turkey breast, cushioned by a layer of molten provolone. Tommy's secret pepper oil--he blends three different peppers, chopped fine, with seasonings and oils--glistened over the entire concoction, which in this case included the requested lettuce, tomatoes, mayonnaise and onions sliced so thin that Tommy must use a razer blade instead of a chef's knife.
The same care was evident in the innards of the other six-inch subs we sampled. A meatball sub ($2.95) offered spicy, herb-filled balls of lean ground beef mixed with a thick tomato sauce and blankets of melted provolone. The regular ($2.95) contained honey-baked ham, a garlicky salami, provolone and, of course, the all-important pepper oil. We would have been happy with a little more meat on the thing, but then, it would be difficult to get enough of such bright, clear-tasting cold cuts. And Tommy's specialty sandwich, the eight-inch roast beef ($5.25), featured meat so good it put all other sandwiches to shame: The beef was tender, chewy and an appetizing brown rather than salty, fatty, stringy and gray. The accompanying tart, creamy horseradish set off the extra-sharp cheddar melted throughout the beef.
Tommy's menu may be small, but its sandwiches are truly choice.
At the Subcenter, a take-out-only place with two locations in Denver, the possible combinations are limited only by the customer's ability to fill out the tiny slips of paper that indicate his order; unfortunately, the result is limited by the substandard quality of the sub's fillings. Although the menu offers a number of cheeses--American, Swiss, provolone, cheddar and mozzarella--the American is actually pasteurized, processed cheese food, and the others rank just a notch higher (except for the commendable provolone). Subcenter's eight meat choices don't fare much better: There's glossy, salt-laden "Danish" ham (a nice way of saying "boiled"); "deli-lean ham" (unvailable the day we visited); overprocessed turkey; spongy bologna; sharp, vinegary salami; and pepperoni and capicola.
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We sampled almost all of them in the granddaddy (size-wise, at least) of all subs. The Destroyer ($5.19) was an eight-inch monster that looked like a deli case had exploded inside a bread zeppelin. The standard-issue Italian dressing failed to perk up the six (out of seven promised) meats stuffed inside. The turkey, cheese and bacon ($2.99) offered a fair amount of meat, only a sprinkling of cheddar and more than enough burned bacon. This was supposed to be a six-inch model, but it looked closer to eight. However, we were missing a few inches of the roast beef ($2.79), which was too fatty to be top-of-the-line, but still tasty. The best of the bunch was the pastrami and Swiss ($2.99). The meat was spicy and lean, and its mild smokiness intensified after a good nuking.
The only legitimate hero I found at American Hero was Jon Haisch, an affable guy who takes orders and runs the grill. Haisch's remarkable memory is distinguished by his ability to process about eight multi-item orders simultaneously, convey them to the rest of the staff and still let you change your mind about two seconds before your lunch is ready. Unfortunately, Haisch doesn't have much to work with. This food-court booth represents the last vestige of a (deservedly?) defunct national chain, All-American Hero.
The aging bun of the junior combination hero ($2.49) held a thin slice each of boiled ham, processed turkey and lifeless salami, as well as cheap American cheese, lettuce, tomato and onions. The junior club ($2.89) contained about the same amount of meat but no salami, which made its higher price a puzzle. The regular steak Italiano ($3.89) brought sandwich steak with a few pieces of canned mushrooms, a dollop of dull tomato sauce and lots of browned onions. And the meat in the roast beef sub ($2.89 for the junior) had a half-inch edging of white fat--the only source of moisture in the otherwise dry sandwich.
Call them what you want--Tommy's blows most other subs out of the water.