Attack of the Killer Sandwiches

Serving up a sandwich: Brianno's cruise-ship-sized grinders are a slice of New Jersey
Jana Freiband
Brianno's Deli-Italia
2280 Cliff Road, 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.  

Of course, you have to order a full one. While the Brianno's special is also available in a half size for $4.50, which is all you'll be able to eat, you still should get the whole anyway. Why? Because if you're at Disneyland you should ride the Matterhorn, and if you've got a Ferrari you should break the speed limit. There are times in life when the need to go all the way is more important than the requirements of law and sense.

The definitive Italian sub has been a holy grail for me in all my years in the Twin Cities: The two other crown-holders in the area are the South Jersey Hoagie at Broder's, which is great, but somehow a little highfalutin, and the versions at the two Buon Giornos. The next time I go to Brianno's I'm going to try to get them to shave a little bread out of their massive country-style loaf, and then I think I might have a personal favorite. But I think this level of persnickety is actually beyond the realm of criticism, and into the realm of the indecipherable intimate, like how one likes one's bed pillow to be positioned. In any event, this is the real deal, and definitively worth the pilgrimage to Eagan. (Speaking of which, Brianno's is essentially 14 miles due south of downtown Minneapolis, on Cedar Avenue, a.k.a. 77, right at the Briar Cliff Road exit, tucked behind the SuperAmerica at the southwest corner of the junction.)

I tried a number of the other dishes on offer at Brianno's, and can report that a lot of them are very good. The Caesar salad is made with fresh romaine, a real house-made dressing, actual imported Parmesan, and delicious house-made croutons. The tiramisu is as light as a cloud up top, dense and liquor-soaked down below, and, like the Caesar, far better than many versions I've tried in local Italian restaurants for twice the price. The only thing I don't heartily recommend is the pizza, the cracker-crust of which tastes floury and thin, and could stand a little more proofing, rising, and depth. The hearty, hearty lasagna bears a close family resemblance to the eggplant parmigiana: It's brimming with browned sausage and meatball bits, it's rib-sticking, it's not fancy, and at $5.95 a portion, it just about seems to squint up at you from its takeout box and holler, "Yo! You think you're not gonna get value for your dollar, Pally? You think you're gonna walk outta here hungry? Fuhgeddabouddit!"

The deli case at Brianno's brims with the best domestic and Italian meats and cheeses, including six kinds of Genoa salami and four kinds of provolone. The grocery shelves are full of unusual artisanal balsamic vinegars, special olive oils, and all the boxed Italian cookies you could ever want. The freezer cases are full of homemade sauces and soups, including minestrone and a version of Italian wedding soup that is thick with real chicken, rich with pastina (the tiniest pasta), and robust with fresh vegetables, spinach, and plenty of top-quality pecorino Romano cheese. (The wedding soup is $6.95 a quart.)

So, why on earth is all of this Italian-American bounty perched in an out-of-the-way corner of Eagan? Turns out that Brian Mangine, one of 10 children in the Mangine family, has deep roots in the old Italian neighborhood of East St. Paul. Both his parents grew up within Frisbee-flinging distance of such East St. Paul landmarks as Yarusso's restaurant and Morelli's market. Brian spent the first part of his working life in the pharmaceutical industry, but then, in 1993, decided to stake his claim with the recipes and tastes of his childhood, and thus Brianno's was born. The bread recipe is his mother's, handed down over the generations from her family in the Italian region of Campania; most of the other recipes are hers too, blended over the years with the tastes of her husband, who came from Abruzzo.

"When we were growing up, we had people over night and day," remembered Brian Mangine when I interviewed him. "No one would invite us over. Who would invite 10 kids? But my mom was a fabulous cook, she could make things out of nothing. All the things we're selling here are what my mom would make, or better. It's all pretty fundamental, but it's good."  

Nowadays Mangine has a house in Italy, and goes over a few times a year, searching out goodies for his store. He credits the venture's success to his employees, many of whom have been with him since the beginning, and all of whom take the repetitive making of sandwiches, pizzas, lasagnas, as a point of pride and an everyday challenge. "When a bunch of good people all work together on the old recipes it becomes more than food, it's a social deal," says Mangine. "It's that Italian thing: You offer something to eat, and you make it good enough so it's impossible to refuse."

And if the fact that such old-world heart is thriving in Eagan isn't enough of a shock for you, I look forward to waiting on line with you at the next hot spot serving rehydrated monkfish balloons.

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