The Absolute Best Italian Hero in New York

Meat Hook Sandwich’s Italian-American hero. Photo: Bobby Doherty

Below, the top Italian hero sandwiches in New York, from old-fashioned belly bombs to new-wave models featuring artisanal salumi and boutique-bakery loaves.

The Absolute Best

1. Meat Hook Sandwich
397 Graham Ave., at Jackson St., Williamsburg; 718-609-9300

Any great Italian-American sandwich, made with inexpensive bread and helpings of meat and cheese and dressed vegetables, invariably involves a modicum of alchemy: The finished product is exponentially and cosmically more delicious than any of its individual cold cuts. Meat Hook partners Ben Turley and Brent Young, who make perhaps the most well-balanced Italian-American hero in New York, happen to be downright wizards. Their bread is soft yellow seeded semolina, and the menu-billed “deli meats” include the standard-bearers: soppressata, pepperoni, and mortadella. The sandwich gets a slather of caponata dip and a cheery note from pickled cherry peppers, along with a crunch from raw and vinegary onions, which layer on a subdued sting, but its foundation of aromatic whipped lardo is its de facto secret weapon.

2. Defonte’s
379 Columbia St., at Luquer St., Red Hook, 718-625-8052

Not much has changed at Red Hook’s cash-only fortress of salami since it opened in 1922: It still performs everyday miracles with steam-table eggs and reserves of presliced sandwich ingredients, and excels at many things, including its house Virginia ham, redolent of cloves, and its unparalleled batter-fried eggplant, slices of which are stockpiled each morning in trays behind the line. Both figure into the Nicky Special, which also comes with provolone, salami, and capicola on a crackly seeded roll that could probably feed four people. It’s less of a hero than a meat-laden freighter, and its marinated vegetables and mushrooms, and copious streamers of crisp, nutrition-free iceberg lettuce convey the extra benefit of making it a salad and sandwich in one.

3. Alidoro
18 E. 39th St., nr. Madison Ave.; 646-692-4330

The midtown offshoot of this Soho shop recently introduced hot heroes to its roster, thanks to the installation of a $12,000, state-of-the-art mini-oven built like a tank. Some 21 of its more than three dozen options are now available all oozy and toasty, and the shop’s sandwich warriors behind the line have been extra frenetic ever since. The meatless Valentino features generous slabs of smoked mozzarella, long-stem artichokes, sweet roasted red peppers, and wilted arugula. The Frugoletto is similar, but subs in soppressata for the red peppers; opt for the yeasty, baguette-like stirato for an extra dollar.

4. Court Street Grocers
485 Court St., nr. Nelson St., Carroll Gardens; 718-722-7229

It was perhaps a nagging imperative to honor the South Brooklyn Italian roots of their first Court Street Grocers location that famously compelled Eric Finkelstein and Matt Ross to spend more than two years at work on the specifications for their Italian combo sandwich, adding and subtracting permutations of chopped green and black olives and peppers to their hoagie spread. That condiment today forms a platform for wonderfully smooth mortadella, capicola, and spicy soppressata. Masterpieces take time, and this one comes on a Caputo’s club roll from Carroll Gardens, as it should, along with a burst of raw red onion, a flurry of Pecorino, and a fistful of arugula.

5. Foster Sundry
215 Knickerbocker Ave., at Troutman St., Bushwick; 718-569-8426

The artisanal charcuterie boom, happening now wherever pigs are feasting on a diet of acorns and heirloom chaff, has been kind to the venerated Italian-American hero. Aaron Foster, who put in time at Murray’s Cheese and Brooklyn Kitchen before bringing together some Meat Hook–trained butchers and other provisions specialists to open this Bushwick shop, is clearly serious about sandwiches. The Triple C features housemade ham and bologna, along with salami, crunchy giardiniera, and big rounds of muzz from Narragansett Creamery. The hoagie roll from Hot Bread Kitchen adds to the collective artisan-food pedigree; baby arugula and a good shot of high-quality red-wine vinegar give the whole thing a street-smart bite.

6. Ends Meat
254 36th St., nr. 3rd Ave., Sunset Park; 718-801-8895

At John Ratliff’s whole-animal salumeria, inside the newly minted food court at the 6 million-square-foot Industry City, you get to see how the sausage is made, in the literal sense: There are teams of bearded guys in spotless white butcher coats, hovering over pasture-raised carcasses or rolling bratwurst links, not 15 feet from where your debit card is swiped through an iPad. The Hogfather is garlicky pork collar coppa with twin layers of Swiss cheese and ultrafatty, peppery pancetta, which gets cut with the bite of mustard greens grown in New Jersey and the tang of mayonnaise, along with shreds of white onion and iceberg lettuce made paper-thin on a meat slicer. The bread doesn’t look like or add much, but that’s sort of the point.

7. Roberta’s Take Out
261 Moore St., nr. Bogart St., Bushwick; 718-417-1118

The off-kilter compound that has served as the proving grounds for a killer pizza place, a chef’s counter, an upstart food-radio station, and dozens of well-appointed beehives has now spilled over to a Moore Street takeout spot. The vibe is suitably spacy, and the small sandwiches are just as on-point as Roberta’s famed pizzas. The bread for the Italian combo is carpeted with toasted, nutty sesame seeds, and the excellent layers of mortadella, prosciutto, and soppressata play second fiddle to the fat, soft layer of stracciatella di bufala. Like lots of other elements of Roberta’s, it’s a totally left-field choice, but the cheese mitigates the often overpowering force of the cured meats, and it allows other flavors — fat slices of pepperoncini, red onion, and even humble leaves of parsley — to shine.

8. Lioni Italian Heroes
7803 15th Ave., nr. 78th St., Bensonhurst; 718-232-1411

There are more than 150 sandwiches to choose from at this frenetic shop. The Paul Sorvino (broccoli rabe, sausage) and Connie Stevens (Friday-only shrimp Parm) invoke hometown legends, while the Doo Wopper involves an enormous semolina loaf stacked with prosciutto, capicola, provolone, and bruschetta. This engineering marvel deserves its own Discovery Channel series; a recent specimen contained a staggering two-thirds ratio of tightly stacked meats to bread, and weighed in at two pounds and five ounces.

9. The Original John’s Deli
2033 Stillwell Ave., nr. 86th St., Gravesend; 718-372-7481

It should come as no surprise that another old-school Brooklyn deli that doubles as a time machine makes a serious Italian sandwich. The Godfather starts with provolone and offers a choice of marinated tomatoes or red peppers (you can get both). The addition of sliced ham cappy, soppressata, hot capicola, mortadella, and prosciutto makes it something like the Justice League, but with salumi instead of superheroes. It should be noted that the staff at John’s may tell you that its cult-loved hot roast beef, which arrives on a massive length of Italian bread loaded with fried onions and a core of melted mozzarella, is the most Italian thing on its menu. Drenched with an incredibly deep-flavored gravy that customers have been trying to reverse engineer since 1968, it’s also worth an order.

10. Lafayette
380 Lafayette St., nr. E. 4th. St.; 212-533-3000

Andrew Carmellini’s cavernous Noho bistro is perhaps one of the last places one would expect to find a paragon of Italian sandwich excellence. While the kitchen has flaky croissants galore and just about the tightest viennoiserie game in town, the bread for its L’Italien, available at lunch and at the super-speedy bakery takeout counter, is all South Brooklyn doughy squish. The vegetarian offering has a veritable tricolore theme, too, with layers of fresh mozzarella, stalky broccoli rabe that adds a delightful snap, and a hearty buffer of peperonata. That condiment’s roasted red peppers are downright revelatory, fragrant, and full of bright flavor.

The Absolute Best Italian Hero in New York