Road Bites: Jimmy John's Vito Italian Sub

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When I’m on the road and in dire need of an Italian sub—surely I’m not the only one with this recurring dilemma?—I’m not looking for world-beating fresh prosciutto or hand cut mozzarella or rolls sourced from a hundred year-old bakery passed down through successive generations. Those would be proper hoagies, which I take trips specifically to eat. You can find real hoagies on the road, but most times, that’s just not happening in a fast-food/fast-casual setting. I’m talking about subs, those meat and veg and cheese combos placed in usually indifferent bread, satisfying and yet not remarkable. You get, as they say, what you pay for.

So it’s worth noting the existence of the Vito, an Italian sub from the (very) fast-casual sandwich chain Jimmy John’s. The ingredients are fresh and plentiful, with a nice amount of fairly decent Genoa salami and capicola, acceptable provolone, and a vinaigrette that, while not a more traditional straight oil and vinegar, still provides a nice mouthfeel. Plus they offer bean sprouts as an option, and the slight crunch makes for an interesting contrast.

Jimmy John's Vito

The ingredients alone, though, don’t make the Vito noteworthy. It’s the construction. I’ve long held that a sandwich with amazing ingredients can be let down by poor sandwich assembly. A good sub has every ingredient in every bite without the food being a jumble or a hacked-up mess. The Vito I had came from a location in Greensboro, North Carolina, which put together a textbook sub, with proper portions and careful ingredient layering.

This careful structure comes about by scooping out part of the bread, creating a managed space for the ingredients inside the roll. Were the bread better, I would complain about losing it, but here, the attention to detail makes a good sub even better. It’s optional, but I can’t imagine getting a Jimmy John’s sub without asking for the roll to be hollowed out.

For a fresh Italian sub on the road, I’ll keep my eyes peeled for a Jimmy John’s location. They’ll get you back on your way fast and fed.

The G-Man Revisited: Mangialardo & Sons

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Back in early 2011, I reviewed the iconic G-Man sub from revered Washington, DC, sandwich shop Mangialardo & Sons on Capitol Hill. My experience wasn’t the greatest, but I have a respect for sandwich places that have managed to survive for decades with essentially the same menu the whole time, so I vowed to go back.

It took me a few years, but I’ve recently been twice more, getting the G-Man each time. This time around, I was in gustatory revels. Where the initial sandwich in 2011 was indifferently constructed, these recent subs were crafted with care, down to the tight wrapping in butcher’s paper, a dying art form in its own right.

The G-Man from Mangialardo & Sons

At $6.50, this sub was loaded with salami, ham, mortadella, and mozzarella, all of high quality. The roll was decent, though not spectacular, and the toppings were fine and applied judiciously. I’m almost pleased that it’s a thirty-five minute round trip walk to the store from my place, as I could see making this place a habit.

My boon companion speaks highly of both the tuna salad and the meatball subs, so they’re not just a cold cut establishment. The menu isn’t extensive, but they focus on what they do best—putting meat in a roll.

Besides, you have to love a sub shop whose scanned paper take out menu (.pdf) appears to have grease stains on it.

Philly on the Potomac: Cheesesteak from Taylor Charles Steak & Ice

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Far and wide in this country, you find sandwich shops and corner takeouts and bland chain restaurants offering “Philadelphia Cheesesteaks” on their menus. But they’re not real cheesesteaks. Slathering cheese on chopped meat does not magically yield a cheesesteak any more than stuffing cold cuts into a hard roll causes a hoagie to appear. Without proper ingredients, preparation, and construction, you just have a sandwich.

And while I’m capable of enjoying a sub (though always wishing it were a hoagie), I’m incapable of enjoying the faux cheesesteaks that have been foisted upon an unsuspecting populace by shops outside the greater Philadelphia area.

So when the founders of DC’s Taylor Gourmet, purveyors of fine, and authentic, Philadelphia sandwiches, opened their cheesesteakerie, Taylor Charles Steak & Ice at the end of 2012, I was hopeful yet wary. Their hoagies, roast porks, and chicken cutlets could well pass muster on any Philadelphia street corner, but for all their apparent simplicity, cheesesteaks require some significant griddle work. No matter how good your ingredients and intentions, you can’t fake it.

It’s not just chopping the meat while cooking it; there’s a flow to getting the meat to the proper consistency while folding in the cheese and grilled onions and scooping it all into the soft roll. Nailing the cheesesteak requires training and lots of it, and if you’re not moving enough volume over your griddle, you’ll never be able to replicate the “just-in-time” cheesesteak that the premier joints up in Philly turn out in consistently amazing quantity and quality.

My uncertainty kept me from making the trek up to H Street. Plus, they offer a “fixings bar” with mustard, ketchup, hot sauce, and mayo. Just, no. Such condiments never go on a cheesesteak. But once they offered delivery, I knew I had to give them a chance. And they nailed it.

Ribeye wit' Provolone Cheesesteak from Taylor Charles Steak and Ice

Precision is paramount to the Philadelphia sandwich aficionado. As I experienced with my first hoagie from the Taylor team, the proportions and construction of this ribeye wit’ provolone were spot on. Not too many onions, not too much cheese—the steak remains paramount. The cheese was delivered into the roll, coating the soft bread and melding all the flavors, rather than sitting uselessly on top. The good-quality ribeye was chopped finely but not so fine that it lacked texture. The addition of some long hots for a buck helped add a bit of heat and an additional textural counterpoint. (And yes, adding hot peppers to a cheesesteak is quite properly Philly; all the cheesesteak joints up there have them available.)

The roll held up quite agreeably, with a nice, chewy give, and kept all the ingredients together from first bite to last. Not quite an Amoroso, the Philadelphia cheesesteak standard, but a very close approximation.

This home-grown roll works far better than the hard rolls they bake for Taylor Gourmet. My last several sandwiches there were made slightly less enjoyable by those rolls, which impart their own taste, somewhat sweet, into the mix. Hoagie rolls need to be sturdy, blank canvases, and while I would happily eat a Sarcone’s roll alone, significant taste is not their role (only slight pun intended). Taylor’s switch from Sarcone’s rolls to their own recipe makes sense—it’s an understandably unsustainable business model, given the volume and the potential for logistical disaster—but I still long for a more neutral hard roll from them. The soft roll for their cheesesteaks makes up for it, though.

I have it on good authority that the homemade “white whiz” also earns high marks. My culinary counterpart had the ribeye wit’ white whiz and was duly impressed. I’m strictly a provolone guy, so I’ll have to take her word for it.

Simply put, the folks at Taylor Charles Steak & Ice have put together the best cheesesteak this side of the Schuylkill. Good value, great ingredients, careful preparation. All I need now is a gruff voice on the other end of the phone when I place a delivery order and it’s like I’m in Philly . . .

A Philadelphia Sandwich Tour, Part Three

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Sarcone's Deli in Philadelphia, PAWith three sandwich stops already in Philadelphia’s Italian Market, one might think we had sampled the full range of tastes on Ninth Street, but the epic Philadelphia Sandwich Tour had one more stop on this street.

Having just consumed a sublime meatball sandwich, washed down with a birch beer, at George’s Sandwich Shop, we headed north on Ninth for a few blocks until we came to the home of all that lovely, crusty, seeded hoagie bread, Sarcone’s Bakery. We didn’t stop in for fresh rolls, though, because a bit further down the block sits Sarcone’s Deli. A simple fact about all fresh foods is that their essential taste is best closest to the source, true for Tastypies and Guinness alike. Forty feet is pretty close to the source, and these rolls were fresh, befitting the best hoagies (but not necessarily the best sandwiches) on the tour.

Of all our stops, Sarcone’s was the busiest. The phone orders came in steadily, even as the line to place carry out orders grew and grew. A crew of four worked steadily, slicing long loaves of that delectable bread down to hoagie size and layering it with meats, cheeses, and sundry toppings. And if I’m not mistaken, there was a signed Brian Propp Flyers jersey overseeing the proceedings. Classic Philly right there.

We ordered two hoagies, though had my constitution been up to the task, I think I would have ordered the entire menu. Our first hoagie was the acclaimed Junk Yard Special (turkey, proscuitto, sauteed spinach, roasted red peppers, sharp provolone, mozzarella, red wine vinegar, oil, and herbs), a hoagie featured on the Food Network (auto-play video, beware!).

The Junk Yard Special from Sarcone's Deli in Philadelphia, PA

Of course, I managed to take the picture of the Junk Yard Special with the non-seeded side of the roll facing the camera (I was hungry, if you can believe it, and eager to dig in), but the essential quality of the hoagie’s construction can be seen. There’s so much going on at once in this hoagie. The herbs and red wine vinegar help to tie everything together, and the variety of textures at play—the soft, oily red pepper, the salty smoothness of the cheeses, the crack of the crust—made for an incredible gustatory experience. This is high food art right here.

And yet, our second Sarcone’s hoagie, The C.C. (roast beef, sauteed spinach, roasted garlic, sharp provolone, Balsamic vinegar, oil), proved a point I’ve come to realize about truly, truly great sandwiches.

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A Philadelphia Sandwich Tour, Part Two

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The first day of the Philadelphia Sandwich Tour, scrumptious as it was, served merely as appetizer. Cue the music from Rocky, because day two is the main event, taking place in Philadelphia’s sandwich epicenter, the Italian Market.

Truth be told, the Italian Market is only nominally Italian these days. As we walked along South Ninth Street, we saw tons of Asian and Hispanic markets, including a live poultry shop, and had our gustatory purpose been less narrowly defined, we’d have eagerly stopped in a taqueria or a dim sum restaurant. But this is not a Philadelphia Burrito Tour, so on to the sandwiches!

We took SEPTA’s Broad Street Line to Ellsworth-Federal and walked a few blocks down Federal to one of Philadelphia’s most famous hoagie shops, Chickie’s Italian Deli. Rick Sebak’s Sandwiches That You Will Like, the Citizen Kane of sandwich documentaries, profiled Chickie’s, and I was afraid that it would be crowded from the get-go, but given the cold weather, we were the only customers when we arrived around 11 A.M. on a Saturday morning. I hadn’t counted on the shop being quite so small—really just a narrow aisle upon entry where you place your order, with the rest of the shop given over to the food preparation area. So, we sat outside, in the cold. We sacrifice for our art.

VIP Seating at Chickie's Italian Deli!

The owners and staff were busy making catered sandwich platters, but they gave our order priority when we walked in. Given the number of sandwiches that we would be eating throughout the day, I opted for small size, and person behind the counter gave me a look and pointed to the sample roll for the small size—not a seeded Sarcone’s roll cut from a larger loaf, like the medium and large sizes, but a plain, single-serve roll. I must not have had enough coffee, because I still picked the small size regardless. Don’t order the small at Chickie’s! The roll is so important to a proper hoagie, and I made a rookie mistake.

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A Philadelphia Sandwich Tour, Part One

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Broad Street Subway or Best Sandwich Subway?

Let’s call it what it was: a pilgrimage.

Along with my intrepid travelling companion, I recently ventured up to Philadelphia for a three day Sandwich Tour. From Fishtown to the Italian Market, we hunted down the whole range of Philadelphia sandwich archetypes: roast pork, cheesesteak, chicken cutlet, and cold cut hoagie, with a few meatball hoagies thrown in for (mostly) good measure.

Seven stops, eleven sandwiches, and one birch beer. Follow along, and apologies in advance if you get hungry.

Our first sandwich stop: By George! Pizza, Pasta, and Cheesesteaks in Reading Terminal Market.

Most of the destinations on the tour were pre-planned; By George! was an impromptu stop, because we were hungry after the drive to Philadelphia. Our hotel was close to the Reading Terminal Market, making it an easy first target. But I didn’t think to have a camera on hand to immortalize the sandwich, a Provolone Cheesesteak with Fried Onions. And that’s fine, because the cheesesteak wasn’t quite worthy of immortalization. I’m not a cheesesteak guru, yet this one was adequate, verging on fine, but no more.

The steak, though plentiful, was chopped nearly to shreds and lacked much in the way of taste. The provolone and onions didn’t add much to the sandwich either. The onions and provolone should almost melt into the steak, but they were practically non-existent in this cheesesteak. Still, By George! gets major points for using a fresh Sarcone’s seeded hoagie roll rather than the typical Amoroso’s-style soft roll in which most cheesesteaks are served. The crisp crust provided good textural contrast for the soft meat inside. That’s a trend I’d like to see more of.

Thus fortified, we moved on to the first planned sandwich tour stop, a sentimental favorite: Tommy’s Pizza on the corner of Girard and Palmer in Fishtown.

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