Maine Italian Sandwich

Signature Series: The Maine-Style “Italian” Sandwich

The Maine-style “Italian” sandwich doesn’t always get a ton of respect, primarily, it seems, because there is very little about it that has anything to do with Italy. In fact, an investigation into the sandwich’s history reveals that referring to these sandwiches as “Italians” may have less to do with the ingredients, and may simply be a reference to the nationality of the inventor. In 1902, in his tiny bakery on Portland’s working waterfront, Giovanni Amato allowed local dockworkers to talk him into splitting his bread loaves lengthwise, then piling them with meat, cheese, and vegetables. The resulting sandwich, which today typically includes a thin layer of boiled ham, sliced American cheese, sliced tomatoes, green pepper, onion, olives (black or kalamata), and a finish of oil, salt, and pepper, is one of the last true “regional” food specialties. Travel South of Kittery, and you’ll continue to see lots of sandwiches for sale at gas stations. You’ll find lots of hoagies, grinders, subs, and heroes. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find a real Italian.

Throughout Maine, to order a “Ham Italian” would be redundant; the ham is implied (the best ham always is), and included automatically, unless you were to specifically request a “Turkey Italian” or a “Roast Beef Italian.” This can get confusing in some shops, where ordering a sandwich made with a combination of meats using this naming convention would require you to (somewhat awkwardly) ask for a “Italian Cold Cut Combo Italian,” which will almost certainly baffle the person you are talking to.

After eating hundreds of versions of this sandwich (not to mention naming my favorites in Portland), I knew it was finally time to work on my own version. I’m sure most of you realize how fraught with peril such an idea is; Mainers are protective of their Italians, and too much mucking around with the ingredients would make the resulting product a perfectly good sandwich, but not a tried-and-true Maine Italian.

I’m serious. You should see how much hate mail I continue to receive for suggesting that our readers put sausage in their American Chop Suey. I had to find a way to tweak the original, without changing what the sandwich fundamentally is.

Here’s what I’ve come up with, broken down by ingredients:

The Bread
The bread on a traditional Italian is nothing like the crusty, chewy loaves you’ll find South of the Sarah Mildred Long Bridge that links Kittery and Portsmouth. Instead, the texture of the bread used for a Maine Italian has more in common with a giant New England-style split-top hot dog bun. It’s the kind of loaf that is so tied to the sandwich’s identity, that to change it would mean changing the sandwich itself. It’s also the kind of loaf that I suspect is out of reach of most home bakers; these things need to be mass-produced, made of hyper-bleached enriched white flour, and slurped dry of any nutritional value.

For our sandwich, I went with something off-the-shelf, a bag of four 12-inch giants from the supermarket bakery that were helpfully labeled “Italian Sandwich Loaves.” If you live in a part of the country where these aren’t available, which I suspect is anywhere outside Maine, I would make “mini Italians” using hot dog buns. Changing up the texture of the bread in any way is simply not going to offer the same experience, and you’re better off eating two smaller, hot dog-sized sandwiches.

The Cheese
I considered swapping out the traditional American cheese for something with a little more flavor, like provolone, but the weird properties of American cheese are such a major part of the Italian sandwich eating experience that I just couldn’t bear to do it. In a Maine Italian, the American cheese liquefies, presumably in response to the moisture from the vegetables and oil, forming a thin protective layer that guards the bottom slice of bread against too much oil-seepage, especially when wrapped in butcher paper and stored overnight. Stripping the sandwich of these unique properties seemed almost criminal, so I left the cheese alone.

Maine Italian Sandwich

The Meat
For our signature version of this sandwich, I had to part ways with tradition just a little bit. The meat is a great place to get creative; the boiled ham on a Maine Italian is such a minor component of the finished product, that you can make some substitutions here without raising too many eyebrows. For our sandwich, I went with fatty mortadella, and a few slices of Genoa salami for texture and just a hint of spice.

The Vegetables
Again, there’s not a lot of room to muck around here. If you’re making a Maine Italian, you’ve gotta include tomatoes, onions, and green peppers. I like to use tart sour pickles, sliced into thin spears so that you get a little pickle in every bite. Rather than choose between black and kalamata olives, I prefer to buy a mix of different pitted varieties, and then chop them in a food processor with a few banana peppers into a kind of poor-man’s tapenade, which I spread on one side of the bread. If you don’t like olives, or if this seems too crazy, by all means, feel free to skip this step.

A final word about vegetables: Stack them vertically in the sandwich, so that it can be closed and eaten normally. The Amato’s chain doesn’t do this, which makes eating an Amato’s Italian sometimes seem more like eating a soft tray of oily vegetables.

The Oil
Opinions vary here; Amato’s uses a blend of vegetable and olive oils. I prefer the stronger flavor of a good olive oil, particularly a garlic or chile infused oil.

The resulting sandwich breaks from tradition here and there, but honors the original. And like the original, our version of the Maine Italian is pure junk food addiction that pings all of your pleasure receptors: Salty, sour, spicy, crunchy, oily, and messy. It’s food meant to be eaten either at the beach where you can clean off afterward with a dip in the frigid ocean, or more likely, to be eaten by yourself in the middle of the night while standing over the sink, washed down with half a bottle of Moxie.

Maine Italian Sandwich

The Maine-Style “Italian” Sandwich
Makes one sandwich

Ingredients:

  • 1 twelve inch soft white sub sandwich roll
  • 2-3 slices American cheese, cut in half
  • 4-6 slices mortadella
  • 4-6 slices Genoa salami
  • Sliced tomato, green pepper, onion, and sour pickles
  • 1 cup assorted pitted olives (green,black, and Kalamata)
  • 1/4 cup banana peppers
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper, to taste

Method:

Slice bread 2/3 of the way through. Line bottom half with cheese, then sliced meat. Top with vegetables, arranged vertically for easy eating.

In a food processor, pulse olives and peppers into a coarse paste, and spread on top half of bread. Drizzle liberally with oil, and finish with salt and pepper. Serve immediately, or allow everything to melt together in the fridge overnight.

Maine Italian Sandwich

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Comments

  1. Annemarie DiMillo says

    I read your article, and totally disagree on your take on the roll. In my opinion the taste and the texture of the roll in no way is a hot dog roll. The roll is the key in my opinion. Amato’s has the real Italian, and most of the locals here feel that way, Italians included.

    • Malcolm Bedell says

      Thanks Annemarie. I’m a big fan of Amato’s, as well, and have written about the chain several times on this site. I maintain, however, that the bread used there has more in common with a giant squishy hot dog bun, than it does with a baguette. This is not intended as a criticism; it’s this very bread that makes an Italian different than similar sandwiches.

      • Justin says

        But where is this bread coming from? Amato’s? You cant get it any where else, so it seems… or can you? Everywhere else uses a crusty bread. When dating a Mainer and buying an Italian for a picnic, she gave me a look when she looked at it.. “This is not an Italian!?” When she told me what it was, It was hard not to say “What? A ham and cheese”

      • Kevin says

        When biting into a real Italian, it’s not just the texture of the roll, but the taste of it too. I’ve only recently returned home to Maine after being away for many years and the fresh light slightly-sweet taste of the Amato’s roll is not duplicated anywhere. I know – I’ve tried a lot of them. :)

  2. Jessica says

    I agree, the hot dog roll is no substitute for the Italian roll…and yes finding them outside of the state is extremely hard to do. However, I would suggest using the little rolls used primarily to make finger sandwich party platters… the texture and yeastyness are more akin & a lot of chain grocers have them.

    • Malcolm Bedell says

      That’s the trouble. Once you’re trying to make this out-of-state, your bread options are much fewer.

  3. Russell Harmon says

    I’m not sure I agree about the bread either, but that’s a good idea with the tapenade! For me the hard part is the pickles. I live in Seattle, and having Amatos ship me a big jar occasionally is the only way I’ve gotten them sour enough. I’ll try out the hot dog bun idea For Science, but I’ve really just given up on that part and use a nice artisan olive bread instead.

  4. AD says

    You sir have desecrated all that is right about the Maine Italian sandwich and shown your true out-of-stater/flatlander/West Coast roots. My only hope is that you will raise your child as a native and they will grow up to be a true Mainer and respect all that is holy about this glorious traditional sandwich. What’s next, a recipe for a no mashed potatoes Needham?! make your own Moxie?! A non-boiled boiled dinner?!

  5. Hilary says

    I am a Mainer living in exile in Arizona – and every time I go home to visit Maine, Italians are at the top of my list of food I “have to eat” while I’m there. I have to tell you, even the hot dog buns they sell out here don’t cut it, they don’t taste right. So I’m still relegated to a once-a-year treat when I come to where the real Italians are made. :)

  6. ELIZABETH says

    Although these local sandwiches are tasty, the name is “real Italian” is misleading. The first time a ordered and ate one I thought it was a mistake and a gyp. Being from New York, Italian sandwiches are truly so much better and represent that real Italian ingrediants are used. Mortadella, salami, provolone, ham, roasted red peppers with garlic and pickled eggplant.
    It seems that the bread is the contoversial vessel here on this blog. Obtaining a wonder bread type of roll out of state is like seaching for the lost ark. So maybe a hot dog roll is the way to go when needing a subsitute. These rolls while somewhat tasty, they cannot stand up to the ingrediants in which they hold. Therefore, a sturdier and better type of bread could be used with more postive results.
    Kudos to Malcolm for trying to elevate a regional sandwich into something more.

  7. says

    But… you forgot the onions!

    That said, grinding the olives up to make a spread is frankly the stroke of brilliance I needed… I can never get the right amount of olive in each bite (I am a black olive fiend) and this just might do it.

  8. Heather Lampman says

    I hope that all of the people who have commented are aware of the fact that you’re trying. It’s really easy to knock someone’s post. But I hope that they are aware that you are a die-hard fan of the food and are trying your best to replicate it without the original ingredients. Love to you from Boston!

  9. Mary says

    Amato’s was not the first or the best “italian” sandwich maker, but they have outlasted the others and prospered, so good for them.

    The bread was/is the thing that makes it better. I have never found that bread elsewhere, I think it is the slight sweetness that separates this bread/roll from others. I always order mine with no olives.

    And yes, for many people from away, the Maine Italian is a somewhat stingy sandwich. But then again, it was originally made for people who did not have a lot of money and did physical labor.
    And we don’t denigrate the New York deli sandwich, or the other similar sandwiches – we always felt “to each, their own” in taste as life.

  10. Hazel says

    Oh – The Italian Sandwich! I grew up in Maine and have been in the Midwest for 36 years. Most every year when I fly home (if it’s not too late at night) first thing I do is find an Italian! Tomorrow my KS kids and grandkids will be here and we’re having Italians for lunch. The rolls ARE the hardest part. Maine baked beans for supper. Life is good!

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