The sandwich: Milano Special from Milano Market, 89th and 3rd in Manhattan.
The construction: Ham, salami, ham capicola, mortadella, lettuce, tomato, and roasted peppers with oil & vinegar on semolina bread. On the menu, the Milano Special comes with provolone cheese, but I substituted fresh mozzarella.
This is important: If you’re getting a sandwich from an Italian deli boasting homemade mozzarella, always get the mozzarella on the sandwich. That’s no knock on delicious provolone, it’s just that fresh mozzarella is pretty much the creamiest, tastiest, best thing. And chances are whatever sandwich you’re ordering already has all the saltiness you need and then some, so while the provolone might be a bit more assertive, it’s probably unnecessary.
Important background information: Milano Market gets its second Sandwich of the Week due mostly to its proximity to my apartment. My since-revived car died in a parking spot right outside Milano Market, so a visit became inevitable as soon as it was clear I’d have to spend time waiting by the car for roadside assistance.
Also: I worked in an Italian deli for three years and made countless Italian heroes. But though it’s entirely possible the deli had some set list of ingredients for an Italian hero specified somewhere, I never, ever followed it. To me, a request for an Italian hero meant an invitation for improvisation. The sandwich created depended on my levels of energy and enthusiasm that day, the customer’s friendliness while ordering, and the meats we had at our disposal.
For the uninitiated, the following is a brief primer on select Italian deli meats less common than Genoa salami and pepperoni:
Capicola: Not to be confused with Ham Capicola or Cappy Ham — ham seasoned in the style of capicola — legit capicola (or coppa) might be the most underrated and underutilized Italian cold cut. It’s cured ham that packs a ton of salty flavor, and the hot variety adds a lot of peppery spice. Capicola needs to be sliced thin or it will be too chewy for sandwich purposes, but it can be a fine, less-expensive substitute for prosciutto.
Mortadella: Basically the Italian version of baloney and, in fact, the Bologna-based product from which every first grader’s favorite lunchmeat derives its name. Mortadella brings a slightly porkier taste than baloney and perhaps even more grease, as evidenced by the visible hunks of lard in its constitution. Mortadella is most useful to add bulk to a sandwich, and can be avoided on Italian heroes aimed at finer palates. For some reason, some mortadellas contain pistachios. No one knows why.
Pancetta: Rarely incorporated on sandwiches despite extraordinary awesomeness, pancetta is a fatty Italian jowl bacon that complicates the sandwich-making process by being better cooked. A great option for an Italian take on the classic chicken cutlet with bacon and cheese.
Prosciutto: Extremely expensive and difficult to work with, prosciutto is awesome on its own or wrapped around appetizers but often suboptimal on sandwiches. Prosciutto sliced thicker than transparently thin becomes unwieldy on a sandwich, so its inclusion requires an expert deli person and a well sharpened slicer. It boasts so much flavor and is so costly that you’ll rarely see more than a thin layer on a sandwich. Due to its delicate nature, prosciutto is often at its best on simpler sandwiches, perhaps just with some mozzarella and roasted peppers.
Soppressata: For my money, soppressata is the best deli meat. It’s a more coarsely ground cousin to the common salami with a heartier, spicier flavor. Salamis are by their nature both very airy and very easy to slice thin, so ordering a half pound of soppressata yields a much higher stack of meat than the same weight in ham.
If I’m putting together an optimized Italian hero and I’ve got everything available, I’m probably using ham cappy for some meaty bulk, coppa and soppressata for flavor, maybe a thin layer of pepperoni for spice and color, fresh mozzarella, oil and balsamic vinegar, and roasted red peppers.
What it looks like:
How it tastes: Like a solid Italian hero. Which is to say: unspectacular, but delicious.
The dominant texture comes from the bread, a crunchy, crusty enclosure for the hunk of meatstuff inside. The lettuce provides crispiness too, and helps give the thing a pleasant, familiar party-hero feel. But since the slipperiness of the lettuce also made the sandwich more difficult to hold together while eating, I’d quibble that its added value in texture did not compensate for the hassle of negotiating it. But that’s often the case with lettuce on sandwiches.
Though, as is typical, many of my favorite Italian deli meats are not on this particular Italian hero, the meat flavors here all blend together into a tasty, salty, greasy, porky combination, all complemented by the sweetness and tang from the roasted red peppers.
And fresh mozzarella… man. It’s a weird thing the way something so subtle on its own can so strongly improve any sandwich, but it’s undeniable. Its hint of flavor powers through, and it provides a sort of fluffy creaminess that both thickens and moistens the sandwich from the inside. Outstanding.
What it’s worth: $9.50, but it’s probably enough for two meals if you’re not hungry from sitting by your car looking at the delicious hanging meats and piled breads in the windows of Milano Market.
How it rates: 72 out of 100. Not something I’d go out of my way for and not close to the best sandwich I’ve had at the Milano Market, but a strong neighborhood Italian hero.