The Absolute Best Italian Hero in New York

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Defonte’s Nicky Special. Photo: Melissa Hom

Italian heroes (or subs, combos, or sandwiches) are made with cured meats, whole muscle and otherwise. Cheese is required, with greenery. Oil and vinegar, the Mulder and Scully of the sandwich world, should figure in, as should some kind of admirably architectural volume. And no matter its exact size, it should always call for an extra fistful of napkins. The city has many that fit this bill; here, the absolute best Italian sandwiches in New York.

The Absolute Best

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

Red Hook’s famed throwback deli isn’t just a place where anyone can get preposterously enormous sandwiches in the company of chipper cops, gruff sandhogs, and the ghosts of thousands of longshoremen who had exceptional taste in provolone. Defonte’s is really a foundational text of the Italian-American experience, a place where, starting in 1922, huge spiced hams were steamed, red peppers were roasted, and all sorts of prehistoric olives were brined and chopped up into spreads for giant loaves of bread, decades before the vast majority of Americans knew there was something called “pizza.” The oil-and-vinegar-stained Nicky Special, with capocollo, salami, and creamy fried eggplant (also Defonte’s “hot salad,” threaded with sliced cherry peppers, and marinated mushrooms) is one of its oldest, most enduring house specialties. Any one-third or half-sandwich, the two anachronistic ways to order portions here, pairs automatically with a 12-ounce Manhattan Special Espresso on the side, maybe because the Brooklyn soda company dates back to 1895.

2. Jimmy’s Famous Heroes
1786 Sheepshead Bay Rd., nr. Shore Pkwy., Sheepshead Bay; 718-648-8001

A Jimmy’s hero with the works. Photo: Melissa Hom

Victor Spadaro, the shop’s current owner, presides gregariously over the elevated counter like a salumi pulpit, often inviting customers to pop in the back to select their own hero bread. “The works” includes the standard cured meats, several condiments, and — bless its cool, nutrition-devoid heart — plenty of iceberg lettuce. Don’t be put off by the Boar’s Head logo; this is a radical alignment of deli meats and the oldest of old-school Brooklyn. Plus, they have rice balls.

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

Ends Meat’s Hogfather with ‘nduja. Photo: Melissa Hom

The Industry City butcher posse sort of resembles Robin Hood’s Merry Men, except instead of arrows, they have boning knives; and instead of robbing, they just make superior sandwiches. The Hogfather showcases house mortadella and fatty, thyme-and-rosemary-cured pancetta, plus provolone and fixin’s on warm bread. Charcuterie is made from Roaming Acres pork, including the add-on ‘nduja option. It seethes with New Mexican peppers, an entirely convincing stand-in for the Calabrian original.

4. Sal, Kris & Charlie’s
33-12 23rd Ave., Astoria; 718-278-9240

The real thing and worth the trip. Photo: Melissa Hom

“Where every day is a holiday” is the slogan of this blue-collar spot, squarely at odds with its on-the-job customer base, which on a recent afternoon included a gaggle of detectives and a guy in a South Bronx FDNY jacket. It’s no shock that someone would cross bridges for the Italian, a beastly pileup of salami, prosciutto, and mortadella, with a perfunctory provolone buffer. The sandwiches have such a following that management recently had to warn customers about a hoax touting delivery to Manhattan.

5. Paneantico Bakery and Cafe
9124 Third Ave., Bay Ridge; 718-680-2347

Save room for dessert. Photo: Melissa Hom

The unofficial edict in Brooklyn is to make gargantuan heroes as if preparing a 5,000-calorie snack for a mythological construction worker, the kind of guy who tosses Smart cars blocking his parking spot. Paneantico skirts this, and we’re all better for it. The 148-item broadsheet menu includes the S42, or salami Calabrese, ham, and soft mozzarella. The elegant B37 is comprised of hot soppressata, pepato, and mushrooms on Royal Crown’s not-famous-enough brick-oven bread.

Honorable Mentions

Alidoro
Multiple locations

In Soho, the namesake sandwich is a relatively Spartan lineup of smoked chicken and dressed arugula. The Alidoro offered in midtown and at the tiny kiosk in Noho, however, is a bonanza of wispy, thin prosciutto, slathered with funky mushroom paste, crunchy fennel, hot spread, and draped with hot and sweet peppers. Whether on sfilatino or focaccia or semolina, both renditions are a solid bet.

Court Street Grocers
Multiple locations

A curveball of Swiss cheese bridges the flavor profiles of Pecorino and mozzarella; garlicky meats are mellowed by a left-field dab of mayonnaise, and the homemade spread of chopped peppers and olives is a binding delight. A Caputo’s roll is the most fitting bread in the universe for this enormously satisfying take, which reportedly took years to develop.

Lioni Italian Heroes
7803 15th Ave., Bensonhurst; 718-232-1411

The décor is resolutely cheery and staff a little less so at the Bensonhurst destination for a staggering 150 subtypes of sub. Most are named for hometown celebrities, both luminous (Marisa Tomei, eggplant and mozz) and less bright (Scott Baio, lots of meat and banana peppers), pretty much all weigh in above the two-pound mark.

Make Sandwich
135 Fourth Ave., nr. 13th St.; 212-398-2602

Condiments like Coney Island onions and braised sauerkraut were one great strength at Josh Sharkey’s much-missed Bark Hot Dogs, so it’s nice that the chef’s current culinary directorship has now led to aïoli-smooth Italian dressing and pulverized giardiniera spread, which packs a high-dose vinegar punch into Make’s compact Combo, with prosciutto cotto, mortadella, salami, and sharp provolone.

Mekelburg’s
293 Grand Ave., nr. Clifton Pl., Clinton Hill; 718-399-2337

Lioni Latticini mozzarella stacks up nicely alongside a veritable Who’s Who of salumi greats: Golfera mortadella, Principe’s famed Tyrolean speck, along with domestic soppressata and coppa from Paul Bertolli’s Fra’Mani. Mekelburg’s opus is served on a sweet, seeded semolina roll, and despite its modest build, it packs more flavor than sandwiches three times its size.

Mike’s Deli
2344 Arthur Ave., nr. Crescent Ave., Melrose; 718-295-5033

David Greco is famously ambassadorial. His Arthur Avenue Market counter is the gravitational center of the Bronx’s Little Italy, and he’s serious when he says the hefty Combo, more torpedo than sub, has “a little bit of everything.” Layers of salty meat and cheese coil around a core of micron-thin onion and spicy green peppers, and it’s the ideal welcome to the block.

Papa Pasquale
7817 15th Ave., Bensonhurst; 718-232-1798

It’s on the same block as Lioni and has similarly nostalgic sandwich names — the Old New Utrecht is olive loaf, provolone, and tomato — but the venerated ravioli-maker’s heroes are less brawny. The approach makes for a kinder hero, plus a crucial opening for supporting-player antipasti like slick roasted red peppers and plump artichoke hearts to steal every sandwich they’re in.

Parisi Bakery
198 Mott St., nr. Kenmare St.; 212-226-6378

Chefs adore soft Parisi bread. It’s deployed currently at the foundation of Ando’s hozon cheesesteaks, for example, and pops up on more menus in general than most diners realize. At the Little Italy original, paper-wrapped combos are generously meaty, with cool slabs of mozz that meld perfectly with the bread’s inimitable squish.

Regina’s Grocery
27 Orchard St., nr. Hester St.; 347-680-4361

The avuncular Uncle John and Uncle Jimmy (prosciutto, smoked ham, hot soppressata, hot-pepper spread, the works) are served on seeded semolina or stirato, a loftier, more air-bubbly baguette. Regina’s itself is also brilliant, a stylized take on a crusty Brooklyn sandwich hangout that speaks to the younger, Air Jordan–launch crowd while remaining recognizable to old-timers.

Salumeria Biellese
378 Eighth Ave., at 29th St.; 212-736-7376

It’d be nice to get very small, Honey, I Shrunk the Kids–style, to watch the legions of flavor-creating lactic-acid bacteria hard at work among the Berkshire pork soppressata. The famed salumeria hasn’t strayed from old-world curing techniques since their 1925 debut, which means Biellese’s fermentation-prone microbes are their own culinary dynasty. At this point, it’s well-known that the bread is hopelessly lackluster, and the $1 add-on charge for lettuce, tomato, and pickles continues to dampen the experience of some customers, but let’s be honest: The funky undertow of well-made salami is braving carbs and pointless garnishes, anyway.

Sunset Deli
4301 Fourth Ave., Sunset Park; 718-438-7244

Many attempts to unlock the secrets of this fantastically nondescript corner bodega, which works everyday magic with squeeze-bottle oil, Boar’s Head ham cappy, and gobs of humdrum lettuce. One possible explanation are crackerjack counter workers, who set their globe slicers dauntingly thinner than the competition, and who apply cold cuts in delicate rosettes, not solid, hammy layers.

The Absolute Best Italian Hero in New York