By Bread Alone
2308 W. 50th St., Minneapolis
GOLOONEY'S EAST COAST PIZZA CAFÉ
2329 Hennepin Ave. S., Minneapolis
BUON GIORNO ITALIAN MARKET
335 University Ave. E., St. Paul
Do the Twin Cities have a perfect Italian sub? I sure didn't ask this of Anthony Bourdain, glamour chef and best-selling author, in town recently to promote his latest book and television series, A Cook's Tour: In Search of the Perfect Meal. Of course, there is no perfect meal. He knew that heading out. But hey, sometimes you'll dream the impossible dream, especially if it means a couple of book and television companies will buy you a lot of plane tickets and hotels and camel rides and all. Vietnam, Morocco, St. Petersburg, France, he saw it all. He came home and wrote a book full of scintillating anecdotes like the one about eating the live cobra heart.
Then he came here, so I dragged him to Saigon Café in St. Paul for lunch--because I knew he liked Vietnamese food, and he could smoke continuously. He likes to smoke. So we had bánh mì sandwiches at Saigon--the split French rolls filled with house-made pâté, sweet pickled carrots and such. "These are better than the ones I had in Vietnam," Bourdain opined before going back to discussing things that have transpired on his promotional book tour. Like when he fed bull's testicles to Dick Clark and Danny Bonaduce on The Other Half. I personally thought that sounded like the most subversive act ever perpetrated on a talk show, but Bourdain didn't.
If that wasn't bizarre enough, the conversation soon turned to the unimportance of food. Two food professionals who drove across town to pursue the best, most fitting lunch, chatting as two peas in a pod about the lack of importance of the only thing we have in common. "It's food--it's just food." said Bourdain. "If you see a woman coming off a 14-hour day yanking rice out of the ground, that puts food in perspective. You don't want to undervalue it, or overvalue it. Nobody finds obsessive foodies more annoying than chefs. There's a point where that obsession becomes elitism, and then you have to stop."
And yet, at the same time, he considers people like Mario Battali, who has all sorts of hearts, brains, and other icky organs on the menus of his restaurants in New York, to be doing God's work. And the thing that impressed Bourdain most with his whirlwind tour of downtown Minneapolis was that chef Vincent Francoual, at Vincent, is serving tripe by the yard. (That's good stuff, too.)
Bourdain went on: This expanding of the American palette of things that might be eaten is God's work for two reasons, one, because the food is good, and two, because not eating the entire animal is an affront to the world, to hungry people, to the history of hunger we all come from, to the animals themselves. All those weird bits--head cheese, olive loaf, tripe, blood sausage--they are the height of human nobility of endeavor, as they represent thousands of years of effort in how to preserve those scraps in a world of scarcity, something that's increasingly lost to Americans living in a land of techno Go-Gurt and chicken breasts. Those weird bits: genuine, and yet the know-how about them is going extinct. Mango mayonnaise squeezed around a roasted chicken breast on a plate: bad, fake, disingenuous.
I was quite relieved to hear it, because somewhere in there was benediction for the slightly insane, slightly scary behavior I had been compulsively indulging in all week. It started innocently enough. I was in a west-suburban parking lot, and a Quizno's chain sub shop caught my eye. "What the hell goes on in there?" I wondered. I soon found out, netting a "Classic Italian" sub: A whole rainbow of cold cuts that united to taste like a warm hot dog. A greasy hot dog. So, I got rid of that, drove out of that parking lot and straight to the parking lot across the street, where there was a Subway. Another Italian sub. This one tasted like a sweet, cold hot dog, with vinegar. Wait a minute! I always thought the common man led a life of quiet desperation! Not a life of quiet, sugary, tasteless desperation with undifferentiated cold cuts on sweet, sweet, cottony bread!
Then, like some victim of horrible trauma compelled to reenact the tragedy again and again, I soon found myself in each and every place in the Twin Cities I could think of that might have a real Italian hero--a very good crusty length of Italian or French bread cut and wrapped around ham, capocollo (spicy ham), one or more types of salami, Provolone cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, possibly thinly sliced onions and/or pickled peppers, and a splash of vinegar-and-oil dressing.
I discovered first that this sandwich is a lot more rare than I would have expected: Tons of places that specialize in that sort of quick Italian-American food don't have it: Not Casalenda's, Joey D's, D'Amico & Sons, nor half a dozen more. A couple of spots had versions that were just awful: Cossetta's, why the mayonnaise? What did we ever do to you? Fat Lorenzo's: Double-dog ditto. A few more had good sandwiches that were just not the traditional Italian hero: Christine's Café, the place that was formerly the New French Bakery Café, had a lovely sandwich with roasted red peppers and good-quality, garlic-saturated salami--but a hero, that's something different. It wasn't on the menu at that newest sandwich mecca, the cheese shop at France 44, but they tried to make one for me. It wasn't quite right. The baguette was so crusty it tore up the top of my mouth, and, well, there was radicchio in there. Too fancy. Sometimes, even if you really try you simply cannot make a silk purse into a sow's ear.
Loving my new role of the Goldilocks of Bread, I thought the bread at Golooney's was too soft. Yet everything else was just right: A thin lace of fiery capocollo, good mortadella, salami, Provolone, a few leaves of romaine, a center ribbon of sliced pickled-pepper rings and onions, and a little swipe of hot-pepper relish on the bread. The six-inch sub is too big to eat comfortably ($3.75), the 12-inch ($6.50) a family affair--but just. Oh, that bread.
At Buon Giorno, the sub was undeniably perfect. Actually, it was almost too perfect. The bread was just right, light in the middle, crisp and shattering at the crust. Inside, top-quality mortadella enlivened with slivers of pistachio, assertive salami, hefty Provolone, two slices of tomato, and two pieces of lettuce had been laid in there with such utter assurance it brought to mind Italian design studios, with their pure disdain for excess. Was this sandwich, this hero, too perfect? Or, more likely, was I simply losing my mind?
Onward! At Broders' Cucina Italiana (the takeout one, not the pasta bar), I got the South Jersey Hoagie ($6.95) made simply with Genoa salami, capocollo, Provolone, tomato, and a mélange of shredded, dressed iceberg lettuce and onion. This was very nearly the perfect hero. The bread looked hard but wasn't, and it had just exactly the right texture throughout, the crunch of lettuce, the chew of bread, the resilience of cold cuts. So why did I, the next day, go to two separate bakeries, buy two loaves of bread, go back to Golooney's, get a large sub without the dressing, take the whole mess home and transfer the Golooney's filling lock, stock, and barrel to the new bread? That didn't work at all. It didn't taste right in the least bit! Plus, I lost the pepper relish in the transfer process.
Also, I scared myself: Yikes! If I told a professional about this, they'd have me on drugs to fight obsessive-compulsive sandwich disorders. And what was I looking for, anyway? I'd found three perfectly good sandwiches: The Italian heroes at Broders', Buon Giorno, and Golooney's were each quite beyond reproach, really. What do I care if there are nearly 16,000 Subways on earth, when I've got three keepers of the faith close at hand? Was I looking for the lost sandwiches of my youth? Homesick? Merely hyperindulged with every food whim that floats through my head? It is no fun turning into the Close Encounters of the Third Kind guy, I'll tell you that much; if I end up sculpting mashed potatoes to indistinct ends please know I'm crying on the inside.
Then I went and had lunch with Anthony Bourdain, and--revelation! A hero sandwich, why, that's a perfect example of the food of the poor, brought to exaltation. What is sausage, but the scraps of butchery, spiced, smoked, and dried, to prevent decay? (Capocollo is pork scraps, coated in spices, and cured; mortadella is made with ground pork; hard salamis will tend to be made of whatever didn't have any obvious other purpose. And of course, they're all meats stuffed into guts--that's what the casings were.) What are the other things, the lettuce and tomatoes, but the cheap stuff from the garden meant to fill up the meal? And what is the bread but the most of it all?
Whenever you hear one of those spiels that runs, "Chinese food, Americans don't eat it right, it's supposed to be a little protein and sauce seasoning the rice, not protein and sauce with a side of rice"--this, this is what they're talking about: The Italian hero, somewhere back in the mists of time, it's just seasoned bread. And you can spend the better part of a week combing the Cities for the right one, and you'll get in touch with something essential, and you'll see some things you needed to see. Like that Cossetta's on a Saturday afternoon was packed, just packed, in a way Subway never will be, with families teaching the kids the way of ordering, with chaos and hubbub and moms doing the shopping while dad waited on the pizza line and kids played on the floor. That the teenager behind the counter at Broders' had such beautifully blow-dried hair it was almost painful to leave before finding out whom she went to all that trouble for.
And, above all, that you can get a little cracked looking for the perfect, even if going into it you knew you'd never find it, but for some reason you find what you need to find, anyway.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.