Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Italian Sandwich - New Dispatches from Maine

I have previously written lovingly of the “Cubano,” the popular Cuban sandwich which I always associate with visits to Florida, although it is beginning to show up on menus all over the USA.  So I think it is time to turn my attention to another favorite sandwich that has its origins right here in Maine.

I have been told that Portland, Maine is considered to be the birthplace of the Italian Sandwich.  Some even consider it to be Maine’s signature sandwich known simply as an “Italian” to those in the know.  Its origins can be traced back to the early 20th century when Italians were immigrating to New England in large numbers and settling into cities where they found ready work.  Many of them settled near Portland’s waterfront, and it was here that Giovanni Amato sold fresh baked rolls from a pushcart on the city wharves.  Around 1902 he eventually began to add meat, cheese, fresh vegetables, and a variety of condiments and his rolls became Italians.  Amato abandoned his cart for a storefront sandwich shop on India Street sometime in the 1920s, and by the 1950s the shop was making around 5,000 daily.   There is still an Amato’s at 71 India Street although there are now almost two dozen branch stores throughout Maine, with a few others in New Hampshire, Vermont and New York where you can still get close to one of Giovanni’s original Italians.  Amato’s also operates the oldest bakery in Maine in suburban Westbrook.  This is not to say that Amato’s has sole claim to the Italian, but its founder certainly set the standard high.  Now almost every corner grocery store and gas station shop here in southern Maine produce and sell unique versions of this tasty sandwich.  I had my first genuine Maine Italian at Sam’s, on Main Street in Lewiston after giving a lecture at nearby Bates College. It was a treat to behold.  Those who have grown up with a particular version tend to stay loyal to it for life, at times even having them Fed-Exed to wherever they might happen to be.  I don’t know if they are on Craig’s List or E-Bay, but I would not be a bit surprised.

Ask anyone who grew up or now lives for any length of time in Maine and all will pretty much agree on what constitutes an honest to God Italian Sandwich.  The sandwich got its name because its originator was Italian.  It has nothing to do with the ingredients.   Some might want to compare it to a muffuletta, a Sicilian-style sandwich popular in New Orleans.  I have had both and there is no comparison in my book.  For a classic Italian, you start with a one-foot-long soft roll . . . not the hard roll you get with a typical sub, hero, wedge, hoagie or grinder.  In fact, a good Italian in its current guise is as different from them as night is from day.  There is nothing really Italian but the bread or the fixings. The roll is sliced 2/3 of the way through lengthwise like you would a hot dog bun, and to  this you add a slice of American cheese (preferably the kind individually wrapped in plastic), slices of boiled ham, chopped onions, tomatoes, green peppers, sour pickles (although I add dills instead because I am not a native Maniac), a few olives (I prefer green or Greek), and a splash of extra virgin olive oil.  I also like to sprinkle on some oregano and a little salt and pepper, but like I said, I’m not from around here.  One thing you don’t include is lettuce (although many do), mayonnaise or mustard.  Why make it fancier than it needs to be?  And never, ever heat them up.  They are fine just the way they are.  Once finished with the ingredients, you wrap that baby up is some waxed paper (or whatever you have handy).  Unwrap one end and eat it directly from the wrap.  It can get a little messy, but what the hell.  Behold and enjoy . . . you don’t need no stinkin’ plate.

Check out the "Looking Toward Portugal" Facebook page for more information and photos.


  1. All I can say is this: for me it is impossible to distinguish between American 'cheese' and the plastic it is wrapped in. My Italian isn't authentic, to me, unless it has authentic cheese in it.

    The pic on Facebook shows a load o' lettuce.

  2. (That ^^^ was Donn Ahearn. They can't figure out how to accept me here.)

  3. I am only the messenger as to what is considered "authentic." But I agree with you. I prefer real cheese, too.

  4. (Donn again) yup, this is the Achilles' heel of the Philly cheesesteak too. I take one for the faux, the ersatz, the not-really, the artificial, the phony. Put Swiss on that.