Today’s Sandwich: Chicken Parmagiana (Anania’s Variety Store)
Location: 1227 Congress Street
Notes: We have been excited about trying Anania’s ever since our first drive through Libbytown. That is to say, I have been excited about it, and would mention it by name every time we drove by. Jillian doesn’t share my natural fascination with small, independent Maine sandwich shops, so she would patiently entertain the notion of maybe one day possibly trying a sandwich someday, which was always followed by a barely perceptible eye-roll.
After examining the menu all morning, I was excited to finally make my first trip. After all, Anania’s proudly boasts not just the “Best Traditional Maine Whoopie Pie,” as judged at the 2010 Maine State Whoopie Pie Festival, but has also been “Voted Greater Portland’s Best Deli & Convenience Store every year since 2004.” When I first walked in, my initial excitement was confirmed.
In fact, Anania’s has exactly what I look for in a good sandwich shop: A huge menu, with five or six friendly, happy workers assembling “Italians” behind a long plexiglass counter. A staff that knows the regulars by name. A nook with a couple of stools for a quick lunch. Most of all, Anania’s has personality. You’ll find some of the nearly-forgotten Humpty Dumpty flavors (including “Dilly” and “Cheddar and Onion,” but sadly, not the long-lost “Sour Cream and Clam”). You’ll find a 70-year-old woman thoughtfully laying pickle slices onto a sandwich. There was even a young couple standing in the parking lot, leaning against a truck, very clearly breaking up and enjoying a final embrace. It’s perfect, at least in atmosphere. I ordered a small Chicken Parmagiana sandwich, and waited.
It’s pretty difficult for me to actually dislike a Chicken Parm. When made with care, using high-quality ingredients, with pieces of chicken breast lovingly fried in seasoned breadcrumbs, draped with fresh slices of buffalo mozzarella, stacked on a crusty hero roll and broiled until the cheese blisters, and served with a side of zippy marinara, the combination makes my knees weak. Give me a Peroni on the side, and I’ll nap happily with a smile on my face.
I also, though, have room in my heart for a more mass-produced, budget version of a Chicken Parmagiana sandwich. Hell, throw some frozen chicken tenders in a deep fryer, sprinkle with a nicotine-stained fistful of oily shredded mozzarella, hose down with some Prego, toss it in the oven, and I’ll still be a happy guy. There aren’t many Chicken Parm heroes that I will turn my nose up at. Until today.
My first reaction, upon giddily unwrapping my sandwich was, unfortunately, a big sigh of disappointment. Instead of the 7″ sandwich I was promised, I was instead confronted with a sad little bulkie roll. It was the first round Chicken Parmagiana sandwich I had ever seen. A quick investigation revealed a breaded chicken patty, with a glop of red sauce, and some kind of shellack of translucent cheese.
Again, not being a sandwich snob, and always willing to give a piece of chicken a chance, I soldiered on. The chicken patty was completely unremarkable: flavorless, rubbery, with unpleasant nodules of chewy chicken-knuckle. The sauce didn’t save the chicken, though it was the winning component of a loser sandwich, with some nice acidity. And while I saw cheese melted around the edge of the sandwich, I can’t say I actually tasted any.
It’s hard for me to give a negative writeup of a place like Anania’s, because I want to like it so much. The staff is all great, the customers all seem genuinely happy to be there, everyone is working hard, and the place just FEELS right. You want it to be the place you pop into for a sandwich every day, or the place you stop in after work for a pizza and a six pack. Unfortunately, good intentions don’t always make good sandwiches, and for me, don’t provide enough of a reason to return.