A WEEK AGO, I thought a roundup of Italian cold-cut subs would be a great reward to myself for two years of dicey mussels, barn-yardy offal soups, and twice-daily press releases from Benihana. I also thought there would be a clear and delicious path to a victor, a prime example of the form to settle the question of hoagie supremacy for now and ever more. Knowing how special this sandwich is to me, my girlfriend offered to spend an afternoon picking up a bunch of them, and then numbering them for a blind tasting back at home. (Now there's a partner.) I looked at the long table that night—set with nine foot-long rolls, stuffed with pink meats and spicy peppers, sharp cheeses, and oregano-flecked red wine vinaigrette—the way Sam Kinison might've looked at three meters of cocaine.*
As it turns out, the nine places from which we sampled (we invited company) had nine wildly divergent ideas about what an Italian cold-cut sub is. My own mental model, for reference, is as follows. Cured meats: spicy salami, capicola, prosciutto, and maybe something emulsified, like mortadella. Vegetables: spicy pickled peppers, shredded iceberg dressed with oregano vinaigrette. Cheese: dry and salty, like an aged pecorino, parmigiano, or asiago. Bread: somewhere in tenderness between a banh mi and a baguette.
Contenders for this nine sandwich roundup were anyone that offered something along the above guidelines. Ordered from best to worst, our findings are as follows:
1. Shut Up and Eat (3848 SE Gladstone)
The description of their Italian hoagie ($9.50) says almost everything (literally): "mortadella, Genoa salami, capicola, sopressata, prosciutto, pepper ham, provolone, asiago, parm, olive pepper relish, roasted bell peppers, olive oil, lettuce, and tomato." The overly deep channel of tender peppers, the olive tapenade, and the hidden vein of hammered bitter greens aren't traditional, but the volume and variety make this a sandwich you tangle with to find big new flavors in every bite.
2. Bunk Sandwiches (see bunksandwiches.com for all locations)
Bunk's Italian cured meats sandwich ($10, with a bag of chips) was the closest to true general-purpose Jersified perfection of them all. It's easy to imagine Tony Soprano on the toilet, shotgun across his knees, angrily pushing one of these into his gasping maw as Carmela goes through menopause in a museum across town. Every single flavor is distinct, from the salty provolone piccante to the house mix of marinated hot peppers.
3. Chop Butchery & Charcuterie (735 NW 21st)
Where Bunk nailed the heat and anger of a good Italian-American sandwich, Chop's Italian Stallion ($8) went for the quiet but intent shine of deeply smoky, house-made ham, salami, and tender mortadella. A hot mix of peppers and crisp, sharp vegetables gave it bright notes and great depth of flavor.
4. Petisco (1411 NE Broadway)
Their Angry Sicilian (prosciutto, salami, sopressata, hot capicola, Grana Padano cheese, tomato, roasted red peppers, balsamic vinegar, and extra virgin olive oil, $8) doesn't play out the way it sounds on paper. The vegetables are barely there, and the crumbling, nutty cheese playing off the sweetness of the balsamic and high-quality meats steals the show. It looks and tastes like the best sandwich you've ever grabbed on the way to catch a European train.
5. The Italian Market (4500 SE Stark)
The 9th Street Hoagie ($8) from this cart behind Belmont Station comes on a firm sesame-seeded roll, is loaded with meats you can taste, and was the most appreciably spicy of the bunch. Light on vegetables and dressing, this is the one you can pack in your lunch for tomorrow, today.
6. Bacchi's Italian Delicatessen (6633 NE Sandy)
A big fat thing with a meaty cross-section like your forearm, their Italian hoagie ($8) looked the most promising of them all. What drove us mad was the overly sweet balsamic that blocked all the other flavors. Red wine vinaigrette with dried oregano, Bacchi.
7. East Side Delicatessen (see pdxdeli.com for locations)—NO
You can tell they serve a lot of vegetarians here. The East Side's Italian ($6.50) looked like someone inflated a loaf of bread with an entire New Seasons salad bar... right down to the black olives falling out everywhere. Bland, with the cold bouquet of a cucumber-scented potting shed.
8. Jimmy John's (see jimmyjohns.com for locations)—NO
This came fifth in the tasting order, and jarred us from our journey like a slap on the side of the throat. It looked like a couple pink credit cards hidden inside a gym sock, and the predominant flavor was of mealy tomato ($5.35).
9. Subway (see subway.com for locations)—DOUBLE NO
The Italian sandwich that is sold the most in the world is also the absolute worst: the Subway "Spicy Italian" ($5). "Terrible bread, the worst bread," said one score sheet. "It molts but does not heal," said another. Plasticine meat and cheese smelled and tasted of nothing, suggesting that Subway sandwiches are simply God's front for disposing of botched matter.
* Fully nude and holding a Bowie knife.