Today’s Sandwich: “Original” Italian (Amato’s)

Amato's Sandwich Shops on UrbanspoonLocation: 312 St. John Street
Price: $4.49
Notes: Talking about the sandwiches being cranked out by Amato’s is fraught with peril. The 105-year-old sandwich shop, which has spawned a chain of dozens of locations throughout New England, is as sacred a cow as you are likely to find in Maine, right up there with “Proper Lobster Roll Preparation” and “Grange Hall Etiquette,” in terms of the passion with which people discuss these sandwiches.

The first thing that needs to be mentioned is that, in Maine, any long sandwich with meat and vegetables on it is likely to be referred to by the generic term, “Italian,” the way other regions might make reference to hoagies, heroes, or grinders, though I have never heard anyone actually use the term “grinder.” Amato’s lays claim to having invented the “Real Italian,” though the idea that they were the first to lay meat on bread in this specific way seems questionable. At Amato’s, and 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.” This can get confusing in some shops, such as Amato’s and the West End Deli, where ordering a combination sandwich using this naming convention would require you to (somewhat awkwardly) ask for a “Italian Cold Cut Combo Italian,” but, for the purposes of this review, we will stick with the tried-and-true: The Amato’s Original, with everything.

The second thing you need to know about the Amato’s “Original” Italian is that there’s not much about it that I would associate with my thoughts of “Italian” food. The ingredients are not that special. Amato’s bakes their own bread, a soft, chewy, white loaf, split lengthwise and flayed open to act as more of a tray for its fillings, than an enclosure. A thin layer of nondescript, white (American?) cheese is laid along the bottom, followed by a thin layer of rectangular ham. There is a sprinkling of raw, crunchy white onion and raw green bell pepper slices. Then, all hell breaks loose, as tomatoes and slices of pickle are shaved in mid-air, above your sandwich, falling where they may, in irregular chunks, and at great personal risk to the sandwich maker. A handful of black olives, salt, pepper, oil, and vinegar finish the sandwich.

That’s it. There’s nothing special, nothing fancy about these ingredients. The basic recipe seems to roughly follow the Subway technique for sandwich artistry, wherein individual sandwiches are completely indistinct from one another. A roast beef sandwich tastes like a turkey sandwich tastes like a salami sandwich, and instead of flavors, your sandwich satisfaction is reduced to the pleasing contrasts in texture: Soft layer, wet layer, crunchy layer, wet layer, soft layer.

The final thing, however, that you need to know about the “Original” Italian from Amato’s, is that they are like crack frigging cocaine, and when I say that, it is quite literally because after having my first one, I felt like a giant, omniscient being had grabbed me by the chest, pulled me through a wooshing tunnel of blurred, misconceived reality, setting me on my feet with new eyes, blinking back tears at the new world that lay before me, yet frustratingly just out of my grasp. I instantly began planning when I would have my next fix, I would have stolen from friends and family or sold my body on the street to get the money, and I realized that I would never again feel as much joy in my heart as I did after that first bite, destined to forever chase that first, elusive high. (Crack smokers? Are you with me?) They are absolutely delicious, and I can only guess that there is something chemical at work to make me think so. The ingredients certainly aren’t special, but there is a freshness to the assembled whole that other mass sandwich shops can’t hope to reproduce. The overpowering flavors of the raw vegetables snap and burst in your mouth, the pickles have a wonderful tartness, and the juice of the tomatoes runs all over everything. I am also completely smitten with the two other major features of this sandwich: The extreme saltiness, and the black olives, two things that I don’t care about under any other circumstances.

It’s a little lowbrow. It certainly barely qualifies as “Italian” food. It also happens to be stunningly, mysteriously delicious; several factors greater than the sum of its parts, in spite of individual components that you would turn your nose up at. For the second day in a row, I bought a “large,” intending to eat half for lunch today, and half tomorrow. Instead, I didn’t even make it to the table, inhaling the whole sandwich while standing over the sink.

Malcolm Bedell

My first memories of cooking start in Maine at six years old, when I wore a yellow rainslicker to avoid getting spattered by the bacon I was frying in a skillet. You can see more of my writing and photography in regular contributions to LA Weekly, Bon Appetit, Serious Eats, and the Huffington Post, and you can eat my food at 'Wich, Please, located in Rockland, Maine.

  1. While not a crack smoker, I know what you’re talking about. I prefer the tuna Italian, and it’s something in the pickles and mayo and… mmm, now I want one. I prefer my Amato’s when I’m really hungry, and I wolf down my sandwich without really tasting it, except for realizing that it’s good (well, I guess I taste the salt).

    1. Tuna Italian? That’s what I’m talking about. I wonder if I can add bacon to that? Is adding bacon an option at Amato’s? Tuna and bacon with extra vinegar…now you’re speakin’ my language.

  2. I am from R.I. where we do call this type of sandwich a grinder…….and the Italians in the state, of which there are many, would most likely be insulted that a whole lot of crappy sandwiches in ME are called Italians.
    I’ve never been a fan of Amato’s sandwhiches because I grew up eating amazing grinders with real Italian bread, meats and cheeses and always oil & vinegar. I disagree that Amato’s uses vinegar on their sandwhiches ( Lord knows, I wish they would…. ) and I also believe their olives are greek olives, not black olives. Having said all this….I do love their sour pickles!!

    1. No vinegar? I must’ve been tricked by the juice of the pickles. It happens more often than you’d expect. At any rate, the point I was trying to make in my notes (and I guess I wasn’t clear enough on this) was not that Amato’s is serving wonderfully authentic Italian cuisine, that would tickle the pallet of even the most discerning Italian from Rhode Island; far from it. But I do think there is something special at work in their sandwiches, something you don’t expect to be so tasty, based on the somewhat average quality of the individual ingredients. Thanks for reading!

    2. Moved up to Maine from Philadelphia a few years ago. where we called them Italian Hoagies. With the best Italian Bakeries in the country. I agree, I’m not a fan of the ITALIAN SANDWICH here. The rolls are too soft as well… They do offer the same meats as Hoagies that we have back home, but why in the hell would anyone put black olives and that awful pickle on it?

    3. Not sure what Catherine was pertaining to but I can say being an original italian sandwich bigtime fan that it is true that there are places that sell sandwiches in Maine that they call “italians” and they don’t even come close. They use canned black olives, veggies that have been sitting around, dill pickles, etc. I suppose there is a market for people who don’t like the original ingredients but if I wanted to share the italian with someone who has never had one, I would make sure they got a Real Italian at Amatos. There just is none like it. To me it’s better to make one at home than to go to one of these other stores and be disappointed. Catherine says she is not a fan of the Amatos Italian because she grew up eating grinders made with real italian bread. I don’t think that is a reason NOT to like Amatos sandwich. I love Amatos sandwiches but I also love a really good italian roll. Two different things. It’s like apples and oranges. I think some people from out of state are just overly sensitive to the fact that they are called “Italians” which they can’t get a handle on, because what they expect to be italian is the way they have always had it. I think we need to take the “italian” on its own merit and not try to be comparing it to another sandwich. My favorite food is sandwiches. I like alot of them BUT you can ONLY get an Amatos Real Italian sandwich in Maine at Amatos!! When you’ve been brought up on them… you crave them and no other sandwich will fill that spot. Also, Malcolm, I was a little disappointed at you NOT KNOWING that an italian does NOT have vinegar on it. It kind of made me take your assessment of the italian a little suspiciously. I think if you are going to write on something you should at least know what it is made of to give your article a little more credibility.

  3. I was born and raised in Maine. I have lived in RI for twenty-five years. Here’s the deal. rI grinders are more interesting, with more types of meats in them (not just ham, but also salami, capicola, etc.). The cheese is usually provolone which is just right. Having said that, there is nothing quite like the simple, snappy taste of an Amatos Italian. The freshness of the veggies is amazing. The pickles provide enough tartness and the complexity of sensations is awesome. Love ’em both but they are different animals. There ya go.

  4. You know, I’ve never heard anyone use (seriously) the term ‘grinder’ either. Is that just an urban legend? Like ‘there are people who use the term ‘grinder’, and they ate soda and pop rocks and blew up!’

    Anyway, that sandwich looks delicious, but as I am in Dallas, I can merely gaze upon it longingly …

    1. Apparently, it’s a Rhode Island term. Jillian also reports that her grandmother, originally from Bridgeport, CT, also uses the term “grinder” without a hint of self-consciousness. Thanks for reading, Rich!

  5. I’ve been eating Amato’s Italian sandwiches since 1955 when I was old enough to eat solid food and my father started taking me there. (They cost 25 cents at the time.) Everyone in the place was Italian. Italian was spoken amongst them. While some may understandably prefer another sandwich over Amato’s (it would indeed be a dull world otherwise), I can’t imagine why anyone would speak disparagingly about a sandwich that was started by an Italian immigrant, has been owned its entire life by Italians, and that has reined supreme in the mouths and minds of millions in the century plus since.

    I remember when Jordan’s was still down the street and the waterfront was still working class. Literally hundreds of sandwiches would go out through the corner door in an hour. Inside you could hardly move for the crowd (it was small in the first place.) Special orders were called out from the counter to the three ample Italian women who were cutting and laying in the ingredients with a speed and accuracy that tended to overwhelm the senses.

    Amato’s was not only an outstanding sandwich (and having traveled 49 of the 50 states – living in 6 of them over the years – having traveled Europe and South America, and having sampled sandwiches most everywhere I have ever gone – being a fanatical lover of sandwiches – it is still my personal favorite), it was an entire sensory and cultural experience that flooded the senses and left one, even before the first bite, with a sense of euphoria and satisfaction in the knowledge that all was right with the world.

    Today of course only the sandwich remains and honestly, India Street is inconsistent in their care in construction and presentation (I find Brunswick to the the best overall). But when you take that sandwich and go up on the Eastern Promenade, park overlooking the bay, the fort, and the islands, and unwrap that puppy and hit the first oil-dripping, pieces-falling-off bite, it’s about as close to heaven as we’re likely to get on this earth. :-)

    1. Thanks for commenting, Dave. I don’t think we were speaking disparagingly about Amato’s sandwiches…in fact, I think we said they are delicious, in spite of some less-than-stellar ingredients. It’s a pleasure to meet someone as passionate about sandwiches as I am (have you seen our “Sandwiches” category, at the top of the page?), and the vivid picture you painted of Portland’s waterfront was a pleasure to read. Thank you for giving us the history!

    2. Dave, Your description is one that I am sure anyone who is a fan of the Amato’s Italian can relate to. It is an experience that happens over and over again whether on the promenade or at your kitchen table (although, most don’t want to wait till they get home). It truly is a sensory experience which stays in your memory and brings you back over and over again to satisfy its call. Just reading your post brought a smile to my face as I could taste every bite.

  6. Sorry Malcolm; I should have been more specific. I was thinking of Catherine’s generalization about “a whole lot of crappy sandwiches in ME are called Italians” when I used the word “disparagingly.” I loved your crack cocaine analogy. :-)

  7. Recently attended a family reunion in Oregon (for my baby sister’s 60th b’day) and all she wanted was AMATO’s. For those of you who don’t know…you can order and have them shipped. It ain’t cheap…but OMG so worth it when you can’t get them all the time. So, I ordered them from Texas, and they arrived fresh, tasty and wonderful as always.
    I too remember when they were 25 cents…..but they could be $25.00 now and I’d still have one every time I got back to Portland.

    1. I completely agree, Linda. It’s one of the first thing we get after we’ve been away, even if it’s only for a couple of days.

  8. Amato’s = Amazing! There is no place that can make such a simple sandwich and make it taste sooo good. I have tried to duplicate the sandwich in other shops and even at home—no luck! I grew up in Westbrook, ME and there is nothing I like better than having an Amato’s Original every time I visit. I was more than pleased when I found the store in New Hampton, NH and even found out my ex-husband was quite pleased since I converted him to an Amato’s Original–and he grew up on Long Island, NY and is Italian! Making me hungry for one now and it’s not even 9am.

    1. I agree, Cathie…there’s something about their sandwiches that you just can’t create at home. I think it’s their pickles…they’re amazing!

  9. I have to agree with Catherine (although I hate to do so after reading her complete lack of “italian sandwich ” sensitivity), that there never was and never will be vinegar on a “real” Italian… the marvelous pickle juice fooled you and just happends to make vinegar unnecessary. It has always been (at least in our life times) and always will be THE Portland sandwich. Other sandwiches can be wonderful, delicious, and heavenly but they will not cause people to take an exit off 95 to get to the first Amatos available after having driven into the state and to do the reverse of the way out to try to take “just one more” with them as they leave the state. The sandwiches have a very short shelf life so eat it in the car on the drive home… go ahead… but be warned your car will smell like that sandwich for a very long time which will make you want to drive back to Maine and once againg drive off the highway in search of an Amato’s.

    Yes, they are highly addictive. You have been warned.

    1. You’re absolutely right. I’ve learned a lot, since I wrote this post; namely, the importance of having a jar of Amato’s sour pickles in the fridge at all times. Thanks for writing!

  10. My parents families lived in Portland. My Dad’s family has been there over 100 years – for background.
    The story I grew up with regarding “The Maine Italian Sandwich” is:
    A small corner store that sold sandwiches and groceries and was owned by Italians [not Amato’s], made up sandwiches primarily for waterfront labourers. Some of these workers wanted a sandwich that was easier to eat, but filling, and affordable. This shop came up with the original italian sandwich [I’m guessing it spread to all the other shops like wildfire]. The Maine Italian, is not heavy on meat because meat was expensive, it has vegies and most important, it does not seperate or fall apart like regular cut bread sandwiches. It was a working man’s sandwich – hearty, easy to eat, very filling, not stupor inducing, and affordable. And called an Italian BECAUSE it was made predominantly by the small Italian stores that were near the Portland, ME waterfront.
    Every region has it’s own sandwich, based on the ethnicity of the individuals making and eating them. And I am glad they defend theirs, but let us defend ours, too. The Italian was a working mans sandwich – made and sold that expanded to the whole state.
    I liked sitting with my parents and sister up on the Prom, by the remains of the Maine, looking out over the water and taking out almost everything, but the meat and cheese [remember I was a kid].
    Then we would visit my Dad’s family, having eaten and not straining their resources to provide us a meal. Many very happy memories.
    I now make them in Minnesota, but without the bread rolls I remember.

    1. An amazing anecdote, Mary. Maine’s culinary history is pretty varied and fascinating. Thank you for sharing this story.

  11. I believe the Amatos started the shops but the Realis owned it later (and maybe today). It should also be noted that there’s a specific WAY that the dock workers would eat the sandwich. It was wrapped in wax paper and they would peel the paper down over the sandwich. In this way, they could eat it no matter where they stood – on a ship, on a rail, etc. So, to look like a “real Mainer” eating a “Real Italian” you don’t unwrap the whole thing – tear the paper down, and eat as you go.

    I have friends all over the country who request gift baskets with the olives (yes – tangy greek), pickles, and oil. The rolls are sufficient to travel for a day and I’ve taken them as gifts down to FL in my carry on. Always a favorite!

  12. Y’all ought to review the lobster roll at Libby’s Market in Brunswick. One of the best around for the price.

  13. I found this post, trying to figure out how to duplicate Amato’s pickles. I’m going to be moving to Virginia this summer, and Amato’s sour pickles are just amazing- there’s nothing like them, and I’ve tried. I’m going to bring a few huge jars with me (I think they’re gallon-sized), but I’m trying to figure out how to make them before I go so that I know what to do when they’re gone! LOL

    1. If you are looking for pickles that are the same or similar to what Amato’s puts in their Italians in VA, you might try the deli counter at Harris Teeters grocery store. They seem to have pickles and kalama (I think) pitted black olives from their olive bar that are very similar to what I have in the Italians when I go back home to Portland. There are a good number of these grocery stores in northern VA, certainly in Arlington and Fairfax and probably well beyond.

  14. A seattle native here who summered in Scarborough every summer in my childhood with m grandmother and grandfather. I would cut off my right arm to have a Italian from amato’s I miss them al,out as much as I miss my departed grandparents. Memories.

  15. I just tortured myself by reading your review, and then going over to Amato’s website.
    My dad (RIP) was born and raised in Portland and South Portland, and on our trips back East, we’d always get Italians. My aunt would laugh at us “Californians”, because instead of wanting to be wined & dined, all my dad and I wanted to eat were Italians, lobster rolls, and fried clams. Your description of the Italian being like crack cocaine is spot on – I’ve even contemplated calling Amato’s and having an Italian shipped out to me!
    As an adult, I’m privileged to say that I’ve eaten in some of the best places on the West Coast, but for me, there’s still nothing like eating an Italian with my dad in his hometown.

    1. Ha ha.. I understand about your comment. When I was driving tractor trailers I had a run to Portland & found a shop where I bought 6 Grinders. I ate one there & finished the last before entering CA on a cost to coast run.

  16. What is wring with you people? A grinder is a sub eaten hot or cold and if it’s hot it goes right in the oven with the lettuce on it. Seriously. Having just had my first Italian, it’s going on the menu at my cafe. Your unfortunately misdirected grinder conversayion came up first when I google maine italian sandwich.

  17. Folks,

    My mother was born @ 103 “Wash” Ave in Portland, ME. She made the original “Guinea Grinders” when they rolled them in wax paper and put a rubber band on them. The deli’s stacked them an sold them for a nickel or dime. She ALWAYS used Kalamata olives, (not simple black olives) to make the sandwich, Provolone, on Nissan rolls. No doubt Amato’s does’nt use the Kalamatas or Prove because of price point, that’s how the “original” was made

  18. Malcolm,
    Having been born in Maine, but now stranded in Las Vegas, this sandwich just resonates with my taste buds. The meat and cheese are almost inconsequential, but this is a brilliant combination of fresh vegetables and oil that makes Maine’s own sandwich a standout among all others.

    Speaking of oil, I hear Amato’s changed their oil when the new owner took over in 1972, and that the oil is a “spiced” oil. Can you tell me if it might be a garlic oil, or is it more of a herb-infused oil? I would like to get as close to the Original as I can at home.

  19. I weep upon seeing the picture of that little beauty. Thank goodness they ship these sandwiches now. I remember taking a batch of 20 sandwiches (pre FedEx days) on a plane to MN for family and a riot almost broke out over the delicious smell. I was lucky to get out alive and with sandwiches in tact.

  20. I am most fortunate to live in Maine and have the ability to step out at lunch to pick one of these up!
    I also like buying the pickles and sandwich oil to make a “Amatos Pasta Salad” . I use either cooked rigatoni or ziti noodles, toss with a couple Tbs of the oil and add a cup of pickle juice, a dash of salt and pepper, add halved cherry tomato’s, chop up sandwich ham, american cheese, onions, green pepper, greek olives and of course Amatos pickles!! I let it sit in the fridge overnight and it is AMAZING!

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