Attack of the Killer Sandwiches

An Italian deli in Eagan makes subs fit for a Jersey cop

Brianno's Deli-Italia
2280 Cliff Road, Eagan
651.895.1088
www.royalcliffineagan.com

 

Serving up a sandwich: Brianno's cruise-ship-sized grinders are a slice of New Jersey
Jana Freiband
Serving up a sandwich: Brianno's cruise-ship-sized grinders are a slice of New Jersey

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Brianno's Deli-Italia

2280 Cliff Road
Eagan, MN 55122

Category: Restaurant > Deli

Region: Eagan

In the 20th century, your average American dwelt in a world in which God was feared to be dead, and you could shock the world by just about anything. By trading in your long skirts for bloomers. By marrying Wallis Simpson. By attending European films. By sending a Native American to pick up your Academy Award. By serial killing. By calling yourself Madonna and wearing uncomfortable tops. You get the idea.

Now it's the 21st century, and God is alive, alive like a wolf in a rabbit hutch, and you couldn't shock the average American with Three Mile Island and 30 tons of copper wire. Is this week's Pop Tart clad only in two deer ticks and a stray semicolon? Do tell. Is war being waged on children with machetes? Isn't it always? Are your playground soccer balls sewn by political prisoners chained to radiators? Who else has the time?

Which is to say nothing of our local food scene. I remember, even in the 1990s, when you could shock a Midwestern audience with a reference to calamari. It's squid! It's bait! Sushi. It's raw! It's bait! Pork bellies? Why, that's not even fit for bait. Remember when the very existence of fried ice cream seemed to call all of Newtonian physics into doubt? Nowadays you could fill an agar-agar terrarium with an active sleet storm of rehydrated monkfish liver and people would complain that you were favoring form over function. And that they do it better in Spain.

So I don't say it lightly when I report that the first time I ordered a couple of sandwiches from a little family Italian deli in Eagan, an eggplant parmigiana sandwich and a classic Italian hoagie, specifically, I nearly fainted. From sheer, unadulterated shock. First of all, these sandwiches are roughly the size of a cruise ship. Second of all, they're about as big as one of the lesser planets. Third of all, if you can eat a whole one, it seems like you should win a pickup truck from a local radio station. What I am trying to tell you here is that they are not small. Which is really just where the shock of the things begins, because this gargantuan aspect only points to a larger anomaly: These sandwiches are extremely culturally specific, and that culture is very rarely glimpsed here.

These, these are the kind of sandwiches you need after putting in 10 hours walking a beat in the Bronx, with nothing between you and the abyss except your Kevlar vest and your wits, but before you go and throw beer on the rich slobs at the Rangers game. These, these are the kind of sandwiches you get after you spent your Saturday in six junkyards in greater Bayonne looking for a water pump for your '72 Mustang, but returned only with a perfectly good dryer for your Aunt Mary. These are post-Eisenhower, middle-class, city-fleeing Italian-American Diaspora sandwiches: These are the sandwiches of New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Chicagoland, and, occasionally, Florida, San Francisco, St. Louis, and St. Paul. They are made by workingmen, for workingmen. They require imported Italian ingredients, a secret red-sauce recipe, and an enthusiasm for braggadocio, excess, surfeit, and in short, friggin' awesome insanity.

And that's what Brianno's Deli-Italia has got. It is, in that exact way, totally friggin' awesome. The eggplant parmigiana ($8.25) is, in a word, staggering. Thin slices of eggplant egg-washed and sautéed until they get soft and silky, served in a red sauce throbbing with pounds of crumbled, sautéed house-made sausage and crumbled, browned, house-made meatball mix, grated pecorino romano cheese, and--why not?--slices of pepperoni. The first time I got the eggplant parmigiana the nice lady behind the counter told me, "This is not a meatless item." The truest thing I've heard in a decade. Meatless like a steak.

When you order one, the nice lady behind the counter scoops this meaty eggplant parmigiana from a hot tray into a foot-long torpedo of nicely crusty, dense, home-baked bread, and just keeps scooping it in there until only two little edges of bread peek up from either side of the scarlet bounty, like the banks of a turbulent and flooding river. How does it taste? Like everything in the world knit together. Like salt and cities and family and bounty. Like listening to one of your cousin's kids whisper out his Little League victories while his kid sister gets baptized. It's a taste, but more, a world.

Ditto for the "Brianno's Special," the definitive Italian sub sandwich. (If you feel more comfortable, call it a submarine, a hoagie, or a grinder, pick one and run with it.) Here you get the classic five ingredients: three good quality meats, including imported Italian prosciutto, Genoa salami, and Capicola ham; two cheeses, including a nicely tangy provolone and a sweet mozzarella; all piled into the homemade bread along with slices of tomato, shredded lettuce, and a hearty dose of homemade vinaigrette, full of fresh-chopped herbs. That's a sandwich! Order a full one ($8.25) and you end up with the kind of thing that could go on a silver platter and substitute in for the Cratchit family Christmas goose, if they were keeping it a little more real this year.

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