No Substitute For Philly Sub


March 03, 1996|By Jacques Kelly

A few weeks ago I found myself in Philadelphia with exactly 12 minutes to spare before my Baltimore-bound train came into 30th Street Station.

It was just enough time. I darted across the main floor of the station to the salad-and-sandwich bar that trades under the name Salumeria.

"One large Italian cold-cut hoagie, no oregano," I said to the counterman. "And wrap it to travel."

A little more than an hour later, I sat in my Saint Paul Street home and wolfed down the whole thing. The aftereffects were not a pleasant sight.

There were sub-roll crumbs and shards all over the kitchen table and floor. Globs of tomato and pieces of sweet peppers somehow got glued to the seat of a chair. The scent of olive oil and Italian cold cuts hung in the air and wouldn't go away for hours -- thanks to the discarded sub-roll wrappings in the kitchen trash can.

The food aftermath may have been unsightly, but the yum-yum afterglow was nothing less than delirious.

What a great and glorious mess! There is nothing quite like a Philly hoagie if you have spent your life eating the tired Baltimore version.

This is not meant to be a knock at Baltimore food. It's just that we can't get a sub right. And don't even discuss a Philly cheese steak served anywhere but its home town.

We try.

We fail.

For years I've spoken of this troubling lunchtime dilemma. Baltimore does certain types of plain food so well -- I think of our extraordinary crab cakes, hard and soft crabs, sour beef, peach cake, Heil's scrapple and sausage, Berger's cookies, Rheb's candy, pizzas from Matthew's Pizzeria on Eastern Avenue, and anything from Marconi's restaurant.

Yet it seems odd that a city that does so well with plain cooking can't produce a knockout sandwich.

Like a loyal (and provincial) Baltimorean, I find it an embarrassment to admit they do sandwiches better in Philadelphia. In fact, I admit defeat.

How many times have I made an excuse to get off a train in Philly just to have a hoagie lunch?

I've learned that even though we can't do great Philly sandwiches here, they can be had in other nearby cities. I've been shown some sandwich-shop detours in suburban Wilmington wherein you can slip off Interstate 95 on the way to New York, have a great Philly lunch experience, and jump back on the highway without adding much driving time to the trip.

I've abandoned the warm sands of Rehoboth Beach, Del., on a perfect August afternoon to slip up to the boardwalk for a hoagie or grinder. The latter is a hoagie that's been slightly toasted in a pizza oven.

A few weeks ago I received a letter from Judie Carbaugh of Ellicott City. She, too, laments the shortcomings of the Baltimore sub: "Around here, a 'sub' is presented on a soft, soggy roll stuffed with anything from avocados to ziti and then smothered with mayonnaise.

"A Philadelphia hoagie is a gigantic crispy roll smothered with assorted Italian cold cuts (including prosciutto), cheeses, oil and spices.

"When I am in the Philly area, I purchase my hoagies at a small Italian deli in Ridley Park. The owners bake their own rolls.

"So, what makes a Philadelphia hoagie special? Is it the roll or the meats? One point is clear. You will never find mounds of mayo on a Philadelphia hoagie."

Mrs. Carbaugh's assessment is on the money. I'd like to take a Metroliner to Ridley Park now.

In the meantime, here are a few more observations:

Good subs (let's use the Baltimore term) should have a crispy roll, good cold cuts and no mayo whatsoever. Let's leave mayo where it belongs -- on chicken salad.

Philadelphia has a huge commercial bakery called Amoroso. Its rolls have the right stuff and get sent all over the city and down into Delaware. There is a sub-roll standard of quality that is excellent. Baltimore bakers, sandwich-shop owners and customers, please take note.

Baltimore's dreaded soggy rolls fall apart. They taste like wet doormats. They fight the natural taste of the cold cuts. They wind up being a detraction to the enjoyment of the submarine-sandwich experience.

And while I'm singing the praises of Philadelphia food, let me add that Philly also has a soft drink called Frank's that comes in the flavor of wild cherry. It's got enough sugar to jolt you into a super-energy high. Yet it goes well with a hoagie. And you guessed it: You won't find Frank's wild cherry in Baltimore.

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