You read it right. Italians are unique to Maine. We’re not talking about people here, though. We’re talking about sandwiches.
Many regions around the country, especially on the East Coast, have a variation of a sandwich on a long French or Italian style roll, filled with various cold cuts and vegetables. A Submarine sandwich can be found in areas of Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts. A Hoagie is from the Delaware Valley, Philadelphia, South Jersey, Baltimore, and Maryland. Parts of New York and Northern New Jersey are home to the Hero. A grinder can be found in much of New England outside of Maine and Boston. Wedges, Spuckies, Po’Boys, Zeppelins, Torpedoes, Garibaldis, Blimpies, Dagwoods, and Cubans are some other regional variations.
A Maine Italian sandwich is a completely unique experience. The origin of “Italians,” has less to do with ingredients than with the nationality of the inventor and his original customers.
It is widely believed that Giovanni Amato, who owned a small bakery in Portland’s waterfront, began splitting his bread loaves and piling them with meat, cheese and vegetables to sell to local dock workers around 1902. Indeed the general area around the traditionally Italian India Street section of Portland is the historic cradle of original “Italians.”
A standard Maine Italian Sandwich is a long soft white roll split in the middle and filled with boiled Danish ham, American cheese, white onions, green peppers, cured black olives, tomatoes, and sour pickles. Salt and Pepper are sprinkled on top followed by a blend of canola and olive oil. The delicious combination balances savory, salty, sour, sweet, soft, and crunchy.
A popular version can be found at Sam’s Italian Sandwich Shops, a small Lewiston-based chain founded by the Clements family in 1939. Gerald “Jerry” Clements inherited the business from his uncle and ran it for decades before handing it to his nephews. In 2015 he and his wife Polly signed an agreement to build a new home at Highland Green and it is currently under construction.
Today a version of the Italian can be found in nearly every convenience store, sandwich shop, and gas station around the state and everyone has their favorite. To this writer, there are dwindling opportunities to find a truly authentic version. In some places the rolls are not up to snuff. Other places cut their onions in slices rather than dicing them. Others still use cooked black olives rather than cured. Many use (gasp!) dill pickles instead of sour.
To me, the zone radiating outward from the intersection of India and Congress Streets and India and Cumberland Avenue and over to Washington has been the only area to get the perfect real Italian. Not only is this is the area where the Italian was born, it is where Amato’s and Botto’s bakeries remain in business. Without one of these brands of rolls or the other, an Italian has already started on the wrong foot.
I believe that DiPietro’s Market on Cumber land Avenue was until recently the Gold Standard for Italians. Starting with a Botto’s roll, the correct amount of ham and cheese (four slices meat, two halved slices American) were applied. The onions were a perfect medium dice (called “diamonds” by the DiPietro’s ladies). The overly sour pickles were long medium slices rather than chunked. The tomatoes were uniform medium thick slices. The olives (exactly five) were cured, heavily brined, and were “torn,” not sliced. Fine salt and coarse pepper were followed by an expert splash (not a drizzle) of oil. The understated (if a little dumpy) atmosphere and the personalities of the four generations of DiPietro women on site added to the flavor. Sadly the store closed in 2014 after 62 years in business.
The original Amato’s on India Street’s version is nearly perfect, starting with their very own fresh rolls. To nitpick, the pickles, onions, and tomatoes can be cut too chunky for my taste, and the sliced olives are not quite briny enough.
Quatrucci’s on Veranda Street was in the top three but we sadly lost it in 2015. In the greater Portland area Corsetti’s, Anania’s and Severino’s are good options.
When visiting Highland Green, your best bet is Amato’s which has grown into a large high-quality chain. The Brunswick outlet is a mere three miles from our campus.
Amato’s Photo by Malcolm Bedell