“Where you are going — this is a good neighborhood?” the cabbie asked as we sped south, past the crush of skyscrapers, the chain stores giving way to empty storefronts, then empty lots.
“I don’t know, man. You tell me.”
“I don’t usually come so far south,” he said as we pulled up alongside a few concrete, cylindrical, vaguely Soviet apartment towers pocked with evenly placed circular windows.
This part of Chicago didn’t make the guidebook. Underbelly. A promising sign, perhaps. I didn’t come here for a tourist’s sandwich.
It’s not hard to spot Ricobene’s once you reach 26th st. Its glowing red neon sign hangs between a freeway overpass and Chinese live-poultry market, the squawking audible as you walk by. Across the street stands a massage parlor and a dive bar with a few happy-hour revelers huddled outside around cigarettes. Inside is a pleasant dining room, a clean well-lighted place brimming with nostalgia and black-and-white photographs, bursting with warm smells. An oasis.
The sandwich: Breaded steak from Ricobene’s, multiple locations in the Chicago area.
The construction: Thinly sliced steak, breaded and fried, on Italian bread with hot peppers, marinara sauce, mozzarella cheese and giardiniera — a type of pickled vegetable relish, here consisting of peppers, olives and celery.
The peppers and mozzarella cheese were optional. Obviously I opted for both. The woman asked if I wanted “hot or sweet.” I assume she was referring to the peppers. I went with hot.
Important background info: Cerrone faded by Sunday, sick with a sinus infection, but I still wanted to try more Chicago specialties. I settled on breaded steak because it was breaded steak, and Ricobene’s because it was open. The tip came via the excellent Jan and Michael Stern of the Road Food book series, which I could not recommend more heartily. Those people are heroes.
What it looks like:
(My apologies, this picture sucks)
Holy hell. Every single flavor I could want on a sandwich was on this sandwich. The beef was tender like veal, and the breading savory. The sauce was sweet and flavorful. The bread was sturdy enough to hold the thing together, but soft and delicious as well. The cheese was heaping, moist, cheesy. All those aspects added up to something like the best veal parmigiana hero I’ve ever had, and I’ve had a lot of veal parmigiana heroes. Some really, really good ones, too.
But what put this thing over the top were the giardiniera and hot peppers. The former added a tangy flavor, plus crunch from the celery. The latter set my mouth on fire, and amplified all the other amazing flavors in this sandwich.
The thing probably weighed about a pound and a half, but I wolfed it down, possessed.
When I finished, I stumbled out to the curb, dizzy and delirious. A couple of cops pulled up, and instinct told me to run — I felt like I had just done something illegal. I couldn’t, though. I couldn’t bring myself to leave the front of the restaurant.
I knew I had to leave Chicago the next morning, but I tried to consider ways I could have another breaded steak sandwich before I did. I thought about walking back in and ordering another right then even though the coma was already setting in.
Not knowing what else to do, I tweeted a few nonsensical things. Playing with my phone gave me an excuse to keep standing there.
It started raining. I kept standing there. I knew I probably looked like a crazy person. I didn’t care. I was a crazy person. I was standing outside a restaurant, right next to a live-poultry market and under the freeway overpass, in some odd area of a city I don’t know because I couldn’t tear myself away after eating an inconceivably good sandwich.
Finally I approached the crowd outside the bar. I wanted to accost them. I wanted to say, “good lord! What in hell are you doing at this bar, don’t you know what they’re serving across the street? Why are you wasting space on beer when that sandwich is available to you right there? You maniacs!”
But instead I collected myself and asked them where to find a cab. They pointed me to a depot down the block and I headed back to the hotel, forever changed.
What it’s worth: This sandwich cost like $6 or something. The cab rides were about $10 each way. This was easily worth $26, plus I’m always down for a sandwich adventure anyway. I could have taken the El train there, too, I just got lazy.
Hell, if I were working with a larger sample I’d say you should probably travel to Chicago for this sandwich, but since I’ve only had one I don’t want to send you packing on the possibility of an outlier. This was a sandwich worth traveling for, though.
The rating: 99 out of 100, and only because I’m not sure I’m willing to give out 100s. Best sandwich I’ve had in years, though, and since there’s no Chicago baseball player that makes for an appropriate comparison, I’m just going to have to go for it: The Michael Jordan of sandwiches.