Thursday, December 12, 2019

Italian Food of New Jersey: The Meatball Sub

Like arctic geese, we tend to migrate over the oceans in seasonal patterns, which means we are in New Jersey again. Like geese. A family thanksgiving dinner, and an unveiling ceremony for my Mom's gravestone brought my boy Aron over from Europe (thanks Pam!) and then it is Black Friday (Ka-ching! for Mammon in All His Glory) and suddenly... Christmas Season!

Her Majesty, Queen Pamela of Tenafly, and the Baby Yoda.
We met up with the legendary accordion repair wizard Bob Godfried for a trip deep into Brooklyn to the Christmas office party at Retrofret Vintage Guitars. Retrofret was started by my old fiddle buddy Steve Urich in an industrial building in central Brooklyn and moved to a more comfortable site on Luquer Street in Carrol Gardens a year ago.

The Gibson Mandola that should be mine. Please.
A couple of years ago I brokered a lovely 1917 Gibson F4 mandolin for my buddy Claude from them, and thus I got a Retrofret branded tote bag which is now the most famous vegetable bag in Budapest. With the closure of vintage shops Matt Umanoff's Guitars and the Mandolin Brothers on Staten Island, Retrofret is now the primary site for high quality vintage string instruments in New York. Looking for a pedigree Gibson Mandolin, L5 arch top guitar, or a perfectly restored 1960s Fender Telecaster? This is where you'll end up. And speaking of Telecasters, the office party had live entertainment: Bill Kirchen (considered the King of Rockabilly Fender Telecaster, and Andy Stein (formerly of the Prairie Home Companion house band)

Andy Stein and Bill Kirchen, Lost Planet Alumni
Both are former members of Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen, which is to say 1.) they are not young, 2.) they were one of Jerry Garcia's favorite bands, and 3.) they put on a great show, which is an advantage when playing to a room of  vintage guitarists, many of whom used to used to rule the radio airwaves themselves. Retrofret set out sandwiches catered by a local Italian Deli, and after watching John Allen - the fiddling pyro of Beacon New York - stroll past with some particularly attractive sanwicherie my wife decided to try a bit of the six foot long sandwiches. Fumie doesn't usually eat sandwiches - she hates mayo and is not a big fan of bread and European sandwiches are usually a single dry slice of salty meat on a dry roll with mayo - but she looked at me and said "What is this thing?" It was piled high with ham, cappacola, prosciutto, mozzarella cheese, and red peppers. No Mayo. "It's an Italian sub. You can get them anywhere. "Why haven't you told me about these?" And thus a new quest was begun.

V and T of Hackensack Prosciutto, Mozz, and peppers.
First I had to explain that you can get them in any place that makes pizza, and we usually order pizza in those places. And two, there are hot and cold subs. The classic hot sub in meatball. "You mean they actually put sauce - hot tomato sauce - into the bread?" I had forgotten how strange some of New Jersey's basic foods can seem to a Japanese person, so the best response was simply to go and pick up a couple of Italian subs. Oddly for a New Jersey suburb, Teaneck has no good pizza, hence no good Italian subs. For reasons entirely unconnected to the sociology of the Middle East, food in Teaneck needs to be either  Kosher or Halal. Sounds like it should be great, but even the trad Kosher food is miserable. Our delis are crap, although we do have great fresh bagels. But Teaneck is the Vatican of the Modern Orthodox Jewish movement, and if you are a MOJ ("This week in Torah Study: How many Beverage Holders does a Jewish SUV need?")  they eat it just the same. It is fuel, not food. Luckily Teaneck is bordered by suburban towns featuring some of the most defiantly unkosher cuisines in the USA - Korean, Columbian, Italian, Turkish and Mexican. A brief internet search declared that V and T's Salumeria on Main Street in neighboring Hackensack served the best Italian subs in North Jersey (we have yet to try a few other targets, such as Cosmo's Salumeria in Hackensack.)

Good indicators: tables full of firemen having lunch, woman at the counter had an Italian accent.... and so we ordered the classic meatball with mozzarella and a prosciutto mozzarella with pickled peppers. Took them home and went to work. Now, these are classic American Italian subs - Italy has its own subset of sandwiches and these are not them. Nuh-uh. First off, the meatball of America is not the polpette you meet in Europe. American meatballs are whopping huge baseball sized hunks of meat, and we got five of them in one sub roll, smothered in tomato sauce with melty house made mozzarella cheese (which was extra.) We saved half for my Dad's dinner and still it filled us up.
Not a thing of great beauty.
Then we went to work on the prosciutto... we got through half of it. It was good, but American prosciutto is not the stuff I know from Veneto or Dalmatia. You can't legally import most pork from Europe, at least not affordably. Real Italian cured meat from the old country is a regional specialty with a pronounced fermented taste and aroma that would probably not pass muster in any American consumer test, so most American Italian cold cuts are basically just salty. So next time I will stick to the classic cappacola, ham and salami.

I used to work on a garbage truck in Hackensack - yes, hanging on the back of the truck as we rolled down route 46, running behind garden apartments and slinging huge metal cans into the back of the truck. For a few months of my life I was built like a triangle. Every day we would stop at an Italian deli and pick up their garbage (which was illegal for city trucks) and get paid with huge overstuffed Italian sub sandwiches. The drivers of the trucks would take them home and deconstruct them into small sandwiches and I would usually just bring mine home. In the midst of all this we had a terror attack on a Jewish grocery in Jersey City a few days ago that was tragic, but also utterly New Jersey. All of the elements of a classic New Jersey fuckup were present: insane Black Hebrew Israelites, Satmar Hasids so isolated that they could not react to news unless it was translated from Yiddish, armed paramilitary cop brigades marching past the bodegas and botanicas of a Dominican neighborhood. All a twenty minute drive down the road from here. It should be an interesting Christmas season in New Jersey.