Our 10 Best Italian-American Heroes

Our 10 Best Italian-American Heroes

The Meatball Shop's excellent meatball hero.

The invention of the Italian-American hero must be considered one of the happiest occurrences of 20th-century American cuisine. It happened in the 1920s. French bread had just been introduced into the United States and caused a craze. Every Italian-American bakery in Brooklyn was making demi-baguettes: bulbous loaves, crusty on the outside, lightweight in the middle, prone to go stale unless used quickly.

Sicilians and other southern Italians had been coming to New York City in increased numbers since 1900, remaking their cuisine by substituting products found in America for ones they'd known back home. Thus the Italian hero was born, a perfect showcase for the wealth of raw ingredients available in the New World.

Roast beef was unknown in Italy; here it was abundant and could be used to make magnificent sandwiches with fresh mozzarella and brown gravy borrowed from English and German neighbors and voila! The iconic Italian-American hot roast beef hero was born (a close cousin of the Philly cheesesteak). Other early heroes were made with luscious combinations of cold cuts, fried eggplant, broccoli rabe, and -- humblest of all -- eggs and peppers or eggs and potatoes.

The name "hero," by the way, was coined in the 1930s by New York Herald Tribune writer Clementine Paddleford, who needed a way to describe the gigantic Italian sandwiches that were currently becoming popular in the city.

It was hard to limit ourselves to only 10 hero shops, and we had to neglect many fine establishments to do so, but here are our choices. Please feel free to disagree, and tell us about your own favorites.

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