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.
Nick’s Special, seen in cross section, from Defonte’s Sandwich Shop.
10. Chicken Cutlet Hero, Bella Napoli, 130 Madison Avenue, Murray Hill, 212-683-4510. Crisp chicken cutlets layered with good mozzarella and warmed in the convection oven at the last minute make this a memorable hero.
9. “Nick’s Special,” Defonte’s Sandwich Shop, 379 Columbia Street, Red Hook, Brooklyn, 718-855-6982; 261 Third Avenue, Murray Hill, 212-614-1500. This sandwich layering rare roast beef with eggplant and fresh mozzarella is a milestone in righteous hero construction.
8. Eggplant Parmesan Hero, Angie’s Pizzeria, 1377 Bay Street, Staten Island, 718-816-7211. The eggplant parm hero features impeccably thin slices of the purple vegetable fried and heaped on an shiny, egg-washed roll, and a plenitude of cheese oozes at the edges.
7. “That Way,” This Little Piggy Had Roast Beef, 149 First Avenue, East Village, 212-253-1500. This cryptic cognomen refers to the very traditional Brooklyn-style Italian roast beef hero. Steaming-hot roast beef is heaped on a demi-baguette, mounded with fresh mozzarella, then sluiced with brown gravy.
6. Broccoli Rabe Hero, Casa Calamari, 8602 Third Avenue, Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, 718-921-1900. Proving both the Sicilian love for vegetables, and that Italian heroes need not be meaty to be great, the broccoli rabe hero — dotted with cloves of caramelized garlic — rules at this Bay Ridge stalwart.
Catene Deli is the home of the fried-calamari hero.
The massive size of the Fiore House of Quality hot roast beef hero with gravy and mozzarella is suggested by this picture. That’s all one sandwich.
5. Fried Calamari Hero With Hot Sauce, Catene Italian Deli, 237 9th Street, Gowanus, Brooklyn, 718-788-0929. Breaded calamari, still hot from the frying and gobbed with the spiciest of three tomato sauces, makes one hell of a sandwich; it’ll leave your lips burning and your fingers stained red.
4. Meatball Hero, The Meatball Shop, 84 Stanton Street, Lower East Side, 212-982-8895. There are some newfangled aspects to the meatball hero at the Meatball Shop. For one thing, the bread is better suited to the format, crusty on the outside, yet yielding enough to not squirt meatballs out the end. As far as I know, real mozzarella has never been put on such a hero before, and the result is devastatingly good.
3. “Mama’s Special,” Leo’s Latticini, 46-02 104th Street, Corona, Queens, 718-898-6069. This venerable Corona fabricator of cheese has grown to include a pasta maker, bakery, and restaurant with a lovely garden out back. “Mama’s Special,” invented by the recently deceased Nancy “Mama” DeBenedittis, features prosciuttini, salami, mozzarella, pickled mushroom, and spicy red peppers. Bet you can’t finish it!
2. Hot Roast Beef Hero, Fiore House of Quality, 414 Adams Street, Hoboken, New Jersey, 201-659-1655. The roast beef is made on the premises, and so is the mozzarella, the latter of such high quality that it’s notorious on either side of the Hudson. Their take on what would normally be a Brooklyn phenomenon is spectacular.
1. “Italian Special,” Faicco’s Pork Store, 260 Bleecker Street, 212-243-1974; 6511 Eleventh Avenue, Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, 718-236-0119. This legendary pork store was founded in the West Village in 1900, and their roster of hero sandwiches is only a fraction of the store’s porcine appeal. The ultimate hero is a cold assemblage of prosciutto, capocollo (spicy neck-meat ham), soppressata, fresh mozzarella, and pickled red peppers. Curious how refreshing a cold hero can be.
Faicco’s Italian Special hero represents putting cold cuts to spectacular use.