New York Hero Sandwiches: Not Always Heroic

In a city where you can't avoid finding a hero sandwich within a few blocks of wherever you are -- from Italian specialty stores like Milano Gourmet implausibly situated in Yorkville to high-end food department stores like the new, cavernous, (am I ever going to actually eat what I took home from there?) Eataly, to service groceries that also sell cigarettes and lottery tickets, to restaurants where, if you dine in nearly any Italian restaurant with a Zagat food rating of at least 21, your bread basket will contain some pretty decent Ecce Panis-style bread -- it's disappointing that a woeful number of hero sandwiches in this city are served on unheroic bread.

The sheer number of places where you can buy a hero sandwich contributes to the lack of excellence. Commercial bakeries are pumping out those loaves and you can buy a lackluster Boar's Head hero on lackluster bread all over the city. Some of the quaint, beloved, traditional Italian bakeries providing bread for heroes make quaint, traditional, but ordinary bread. Yes, fresh, but mushy inside and essentially banal.

Without naming the name -- I don't have the heart -- recently I ate a hero from a well-known Italian hero place, with good ingredients served on bread from a local Italian bakery. The purveyor was being admirably loyal by keeping it all in the neighborhood. But the bread was mushy and bland inside, not what we now understand to be excellent baked bread. If that old-fashioned bread is to your taste because it's what you've grown up with and have always known, fair enough, tradition is tradition. But the baking arts have changed here over the years.

There are places where it all comes together, excellent bread and excellent ingredients, not as many places as you'd expect in New York, but some, and the one I particularly like, and am amused by, is Alidoro on Sullivan Street in Manhattan, formerly known as Melampo. They order bread made to their specifications from two top-level Brooklyn bakeries, Royal Crown and Gold Star, and they are also supplied by the artisanal Grandaisy bakery nearby. The special-ordered bread from Brooklyn is outstanding and is available during the week, not on Saturday, at a surcharge. The store is closed on Sunday. And the no-extra-charge bread is grainier with a tastier crust than most.

What is amusing about Alidoro is the quirkiness of the menu, forty sandwiches with names like the Pacino, the Fellini, the Vivaldi, the Galileo, as though the owners were graduates of the Shopsin School of Culinary Idiosyncrasy. I refer to Shopsin's, the ultimate in idiosyncratic cuisine, now located for your madcap pleasure in the Essex Street Market.

At Alidoro, changes to the listed ingredients of a given sandwich are allowed, but the additions also carry surcharges. So you could order a ten dollar sandwich and end up with a surcharge for the special-ordered bread and another surcharge for your added meat, cheese or roasted peppers. It's not Blimpie.

The culture of the place has inspired some complaints on the food blogs, allusions to a Seinfeld-ian Soup Nazi atmosphere in this narrow space of an operation. I never have had trouble, but then I keep to the menu. I have also never done better than a fifteen or twenty minute wait for a sandwich and people complain about that, too.

Is it worth the wait? Absolutely. Wonderful, fresh ingredients, imported cheeses and meats, and outstanding bread. Eating at one of their tiny tables is not grand dining, you're eighteen inches away from the people standing on line. I usually go around the corner to a nearby playground and eat there. I like the Pavarotti -- salami, smoked mozzarella, sun dried tomatoes, artichokes, sweet roasted peppers ($11.75). And in a lighter frame of mind, the Cabiria -- fresh mozzarella, sweet roasted peppers, arugula ($9.25).

I don't know what I've done for the regulars by writing this, increased the wait, no doubt. Still, fair is fair, an estimable, quirky place like this should be known, and if you don't know about Alidoro (105 Sullivan Street, just north of Spring Street), (capicollo, mortadello, add $2.75) you should.