I love sandwiches. Washington DC loves sandwiches. I love Washington DC.
Some things just seem fated. I arrived in the capital in the throes of a fevered sandwich obsession just when sandwiches seemed to be dominating the passions of every food loving Washingtonian. Google Washington and in would auto fill "'s best sandwiches", local magazines were extolling the pleasures of a good sandwich in big, garish cover stories and a city-wide tournament was taking place between the area's best sandwich cooks.
My girlfriend, who shares my obsession and has her finger on the "sandwich pulse", had already made me a list of the must tries—A. Litteri, Rose's Luxury, G, Sundevich, Red Apron, etc etc*—so with only two weeks to spare we wasted no time in getting down to it.
The first stop was A. Litteri, an overstuffed Italian market slotted in between the warehouses on Morse Street in the Union Market area.
What a first stop it was. My presumed deceased patriotic impulses were stirring before we even got into the store. As soon as we got out of the car it even sounded delicious thanks to the mix of Cantonese, Spanish, Ewe and Amharic spilling out of the warehouses with boxes of Chinese vegetables, Ghanian yams, and dried chillies.
Entering under a painting of an Italian sub, A. Litteri was dark, and tight, and crammed to bursting with jars of pickles, sauces, and preserves in portions ranging from tiny single-serving jars to restaurant supply barrels the size of a tallish child. There were overstuffed refrigerators of fresh and frozen pastas, cubbies rammed with bread rolls, mountains of olives, and walls of dried pasta. Against the far wall was the deli counter with cured meats, bowls of peppers floating in oil, and assorted antipasti behind glass.
I may have been out of the country for a while but I'm not new. I ordered right: 9-inch Italian sub with all the fixins (at A. Litteri this means capicola, Genoa salami, mortadela, prosciuttini, provolone, lettuce, tomato, onion, hot pepper, and Italian dressing ) on a hard roll** with a trio of peppers on the side—medium hot finger peppers stuffed with mozzarella and prosciutto, goat cheese stuffed sweet peppers, and miniature mild bell peppers stuffed with the same mozzarella and prosciutto.
To say the sandwich hit the spot is to miss the mark widely. This was more a "blind man sees" type of situation.
I’ve learned over the years introducing out-of-towners to their first "classic Italian" that a surprising number feel their first sub experience is a bit of a letdown. I think this is because the typical modern jaded sandwich palate, used to mounds of pickles, strong mustards, peppery micro greens, sweet artisanal spreads, and sharp stinky cheeses, may feel the Italian sub, with its ice burg lettuce, raw onion and thick shingle of cured meat, is a bit one-note.
I realize that taste, perhaps especially when it comes to food, is subjective and intensely personal. Still, I have no reservations in saying these people are wrong.
The Italian sub is not a modern sandwich: it is somehow pastoral, hardscrabble, a shepherd's lunch of a sandwich, an urban memory of a country luncheon. A good Italian sub is an artifact of a great geographic and spiritual shift, of a rural people staking out a place for themselves, against all odds in a cold and indifferent urban world. It’s real Cain and Abel stuff and it is perfect.
Sorry I'll stop. Good subs have a way of making me lose all perspective. Suffice it to say A. Litteri makes a very good sandwich. And those peppers, God damn.
*I would be remiss if I didn't mention the obvious omission of Stachowski's Market in Georgetown. I ate there before on my last trip home and wanted to keep this list all new-to-me sandwiches. Still, they make an excellent and justifiably famous Italian sandwich. Be warned, they are really, bizarrely big. One could easily feed a very hungry orphanage. The sandwich we ordered would not fit in the glove box of our car. This is no joke.
**A word on rolls. When ordering a proper Italian sandwich you order it on a hard roll. I know that soft rolls are often better but, in the world of deli most of all, without tradition all is lost. If you can’t handle the hard roll just leave your sandwich in the paper for a while and let it soak up all of that oil, vinegar, and processed pork perspiration (PPP). In fact do this anyway.