The Maine-style “Italian” sandwich doesn’t always get a ton of respect, primarily, it seems, because there is very little about it that has anything to do with Italy. In fact, an investigation into the sandwich’s history reveals that referring to these sandwiches as “Italians” may have less to do with the ingredients, and may simply be a reference to the nationality of the inventor. In 1902, in his tiny bakery on Portland’s working waterfront, Giovanni Amato allowed local dockworkers to talk him into splitting his bread loaves lengthwise, then piling them with meat, cheese, and vegetables. The resulting sandwich, which today typically includes a thin layer of boiled ham, sliced American cheese, sliced tomatoes, green pepper, onion, olives (black or kalamata), and a finish of oil, salt, and pepper, is one of the last true “regional” food specialties. Travel South of Kittery, and you’ll continue to see lots of sandwiches for sale at gas stations. You’ll find lots of hoagies, grinders, subs, and heroes. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a real Italian.
Throughout Maine, to order a “Ham Italian” would be redundant; the ham is implied (the best ham always is), and included automatically, unless you were to specifically request a “Turkey Italian” or a “Roast Beef Italian.” This can get confusing in some shops, where ordering a sandwich made with a combination of meats using this naming convention would require you to (somewhat awkwardly) ask for a “Italian Cold Cut Combo Italian,” which will almost certainly baffle the person you are talking to.
After eating hundreds of versions of this sandwich (not to mention naming my favorites in Portland), I knew it was finally time to work on my own version. I’m sure most of you realize how fraught with peril such an idea is; Mainers are protective of their Italians, and too much mucking around with the ingredients would make the resulting product a perfectly good sandwich, but not a tried-and-true Maine Italian.
I’m serious. You should see how much hate mail I continue to receive for suggesting that our readers put sausage in their American Chop Suey. I had to find a way to tweak the original, without changing what the sandwich fundamentally is.
Here’s what I’ve come up with, broken down by ingredients:
The bread on a traditional Italian is nothing like the crusty, chewy loaves you’ll find South of the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge that links Kittery and Portsmouth. Instead, the texture of the bread used for a Maine Italian has more in common with a giant New England-style split-top hot dog bun. It’s the kind of loaf that is so tied to the sandwich’s identity, that to change it would mean changing the sandwich itself. It’s also the kind of loaf that I suspect is out of reach of most home bakers; these things need to be mass-produced, made of hyper-bleached enriched white flour, and slurped dry of any nutritional value.
For our sandwich, I went with something off-the-shelf, a bag of four 12-inch giants from the supermarket bakery that were helpfully labeled “Italian Sandwich Loaves.” If you live in a part of the country where these aren’t available, which I suspect is anywhere outside Maine, I would make “mini Italians” using hot dog buns. Changing up the texture of the bread in any way is simply not going to offer the same experience, and you’re better off eating two smaller, hot dog-sized sandwiches.
I considered swapping out the traditional American cheese for something with a little more flavor, like provolone, but the weird properties of American cheese are such a major part of the Italian sandwich eating experience that I just couldn’t bear to do it. In a Maine Italian, the American cheese liquefies, presumably in response to the moisture from the vegetables and oil, forming a thin protective layer that guards the bottom slice of bread against too much oil-seepage, especially when wrapped in butcher paper and stored overnight. Stripping the sandwich of these unique properties seemed almost criminal, so I left the cheese alone.
For our signature version of this sandwich, I had to part ways with tradition just a little bit. The meat is a great place to get creative; the boiled ham on a Maine Italian is such a minor component of the finished product, that you can make some substitutions here without raising too many eyebrows. For our sandwich, I went with fatty mortadella, and a few slices of Genoa salami for texture and just a hint of spice.
Again, there’s not a lot of room to muck around here. If you’re making a Maine Italian, you’ve gotta include tomatoes, onions, and green peppers. I like to use tart sour pickles, sliced into thin spears so that you get a little pickle in every bite. Rather than choose between black and kalamata olives, I prefer to buy a mix of different pitted varieties, and then chop them in a food processor with a few banana peppers into a kind of poor-man’s tapenade, which I spread on one side of the bread. If you don’t like olives, or if this seems too crazy, by all means, feel free to skip this step.
A final word about vegetables: Stack them vertically in the sandwich, so that it can be closed and eaten normally. The Amato’s chain doesn’t do this, which makes eating an Amato’s Italian sometimes seem more like eating a soft tray of oily vegetables.
Opinions vary here; Amato’s uses a blend of vegetable and olive oils. I prefer the stronger flavor of a good olive oil, particularly a garlic or chile infused oil.
The resulting sandwich breaks from tradition here and there, but honors the original. And like the original, our version of the Maine Italian is pure junk food addiction that pings all of your pleasure receptors: Salty, sour, spicy, crunchy, oily, and messy. It’s food meant to be eaten either at the beach where you can clean off afterward with a dip in the frigid ocean, or more likely, to be eaten by yourself in the middle of the night while standing over the sink, washed down with half a bottle of Moxie.
The Maine-Style “Italian” Sandwich
Makes one sandwich
- 1 twelve inch soft white sub sandwich roll
- 2-3 slices American cheese, cut in half
- 4-6 slices mortadella
- 4-6 slices Genoa salami
- Sliced tomato, green pepper, onion, and sour pickles
- 1 cup assorted pitted olives (green,black, and Kalamata)
- 1/4 cup banana peppers
- Olive oil
- Salt and pepper, to taste
Slice bread 2/3 of the way through. Line bottom half with cheese, then sliced meat. Top with vegetables, arranged vertically for easy eating.
In a food processor, pulse olives and peppers into a coarse paste, and spread on top half of bread. Drizzle liberally with oil, and finish with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, or allow everything to melt together in the fridge overnight.