The hero sandwich is one of New Yorkers’ all-time favorite foods. Sliced meat, cheese, and veggies inside a large Italian bread roll makes for a delicious and filling meal any time of day.
If you’re curious to see some facts about the hero sandwich, you’re reading the right post. Who created it? Why is it called that way in the first place? How can you make a hero sandwich at home? What’s the difference between a hero sandwich and a sub, grinder, hoagie, wedge, spuckie?
Who Invented the Hero Sandwich?
‘Hero sandwich’ is the name that New Yorkers have given to the Italian sandwich. The Italian sandwich is an Italian-American classic. It was created in 1902 in Portland by immigrant baker Giovanni Amato from Naples, Italy.
Amato sold bread rolls from his food cart on the fishing docks of Portland. Story goes that he began getting asked by fisherman and dockworkers to slice the bread rolls in two and add ingredients, like sliced meats, cheeses, and vegetables, to them. And so the Italian sandwich was born.
The traditional Italian sandwich based on Amato’s recipe is made with fresh-baked bread, sliced ham, American cheese, tomato slices, onions, green peppers, pickles, and Kalamata olives. The sliced roll is brushed with olive oil on the inside.
Over time, Amato’s food cart grew from a food cart to a chain of restaurants across America. Amato’s operates a chain of 40+ locations today.
So far, so good. But that’s still the Italian sandwich. What about the hero?
Why Is It Called the Hero Sandwich?
If ‘hero sandwich’ is a name for and variation of Amato’s original Italian sandwich, then where does the name come from?
Like all good things, food culture spreads fast and the history of food can sometimes be hard to trace. But here’s what we know… In a food column for the New York Herald Tribune in 1936, American food author Clementine Paddleford wrote about the Italian sandwich. It was so big, she said, “you had to be a hero to eat it.”
Paddleford was one of America’s first foodies. Her food column had a good following on the Tribune. After she coined the name ‘hero sandwich,’ it most probably began to spread—and new yorkers one by one started to just call it ‘hero.’
The Tribune went out of print in 1966. There’s no searchable online archives. According to Bon Appétit magazine, Paddleford’s column is retrievable offline in Rutgers University’s microfilm archive.
How to Make a Hero Sandwich
Unlike Neapolitan pizza, there isn’t a strict definition for what a hero sandwich should be. So there’s no by-the-book recipe.
The hero sandwich should consist of:
- An Italian meat like salami, mortadella, pepperoni, capicola, and/or prosciutto);
- Cheese slices like an Italian cheese like mozzarella, provolone, romano or American cheese;
- Vegetables, including but not limited to tomato, onion, peppers, pickles, olives, and lettuce.
It’s built on a long bread roll. If you want to follow the traditional recipe, that bread roll should be a freshly-baked Italian bread roll with a long and pointed shape, also known as ‘spuccadella.’ Spuccadella originates from panini recipes that immigrant Italians brought from their home country to America.
A hero can have pretty much any condiment, but the most traditional one remains extra-virgin olive oil, brushed on each side of the sliced roll.
Finally, a pro tip I read somewhere from a person whose Italian-American grandma was great at making hero sandwiches: use two slices of cheese and put all other ingredients between them. The cheese and olive oil will get along well, and the bread roll won’t get soggy.
What’s the Difference Between Hero, Sub, Grinder, Hoagie, Spuckie?
‘Hero,’ ‘sub,’ ‘grinder,’ ‘hoagie,’ ‘wedge,’ and ‘spuckie’ are all names for and variations of Giovanni Amato’s Italian sandwich in different regions across the United States.
Since the Italian sandwich was popular among dockworkers and the navy, you’ll notice that these names can often be traced back to, in one way or another, docks and dockyards:
- The ‘sub’ or ‘submarine sandwich’ comes from Connecticut thanks to its obvious-to-someone resemblance to a submarine;
- ‘Grinder’ is a common term in New England. The name supposedly comes from the Italian-American slang for dockworker;
- ‘Hoagie’ is a popular name for the Italian sandwich in Philadelphia, as the Philadelphia Navy Yard was located on a piece of land once known as Hog Island;
- Westchester County, Putnam County, and Dutchess County in New York, a popular term is ‘wedge,’ which comes from the diagonal cut in the middle of the sandwich;
- Bostoners call it ‘spuckie’ after the Italian name for a long and pointed bread roll, spuccadella.
Here we are. You now know the story behind the hero sandwich. Created by an Italian baker in the early 1900’s, named by one of America’s first foodies in 1936, and enjoyed by New Yorkers, citigoers, and tourists ever since.
Photo by Foodista on Flickr