Italian is not my go-to sub. Come to think of it, I don’t really have a go-to sub, although the Italian falls somewhere south of roast beef, ham-and-cheese, turkey and meatball.
But I try to sub an Italian into the rotation now and again. They are — a lot. In fact, I rarely get past half an Italian, although I often want to keep going. If I do, though, the potent mixture of meats, provolone cheese, toppings and dressing can conspire to conjure in me a regrettable gut bomb. I plan on averting that.
For this week’s edition, I chose two establishments whose mere names suggest Italian-sub bona fides: Mazzaro’s Italian Market on the busy 22nd Avenue corridor of St. Pete; and DeCosmo Italian Market on the busy 49th Street corridor of Pinellas Park. Bonnie and I picked up both subs during a single run and brought them back to the FFF Lab™.
Before I begin: To those folks who say “hoagie,” “hero” and even “grinder,” I went with the most commonly used term. Plus, “sub” is what I grew up with.
Mazzaro’s Italian Market
I don’t use the word “legend” lightly, but I will for Mazzaro’s. Local legend, 30 years and counting. It’s a fair bet that a random couple living in a Westchase subdivision have at least heard of Mazzaro’s, and likely made a pilgrimage to check the place out.
I rarely pop in, though. Most of you know why. It’s the crowds. Forget Saturdays, forget lunch hour — at 2:30 p.m. on any given Tuesday, the place is usually jammed with people perusing its narrow aisles, waiting for sandwiches at the deli counter, sipping joe at the coffee bar.
So early Tuesday afternoon I ordered and paid for my Italian sub online and picked it up at a takeout counter. Took less than a minute.
On the menu, the sandwich is called: #1 Ham, Genoa, Capicola & Mortadella …….. $8.00. Blandly descriptive, but it exudes confidence, does it not? We don’t need to give our sandwiches fancy names. Heck, we don’t even need to call this one an Italian sub. You’ll figure it out.
The bread looked darker and crustier than most subs. The meat was mostly hidden by a large swath of Mazzaro’s trademark Italian slaw, with chopped squares of roasted red pepper and red onions peering out. The #1 sandwich is clearly the product of a well honed recipe that doesn’t follow the crowd.
Texture and Taste
I expected the “half loaf of [Mazzaro’s] own wood-fired oven bread” to be chewier, perhaps annoyingly so, but instead it gave way without much effort. This roll had a distinct, earthy character that was as fundamental to the sandwich as any other component, perhaps more so. It wasn’t just a fluffy housing for the stuff inside.
The sandwich was so thick that I could’ve used an extra hinge in my jaws. I’ll mark that down as a negative. I’m all for abundance, but I prefer to chomp rather than nibble my way in. Soon enough, I got my chomp on.
The combination of meats and cheese was tasty, although in a few bites the provolone proved too sharp and dominant.
The toppings make for an exquisite mixture. The Italian slaw — which I have bought by the pint to jazz up my own sandwiches — is heaven sent. The peppers added tang, and romaine lettuce had flavor as well as crunch. The slices of red onion, however, were so bitter that I removed them all.
DeCosmo Italian Market
A painted sign in one of the store windows said “Stretched Mozzarella,” suggesting that this place is serious.
DeCosmo, which has only been open since last September, is located in a strip mall among a stretch of strip malls. Its interior is long and narrow, with a few signifiers of its Italian-ness. At 1:30, a handful of folks were shopping.
I called in advance to order my “DeCosmo” sandwich ($10.99 for a large) — ham, salami, capicola, provolone, tomato, onion, lettuce and house dressing. The guy who answered the phone was polite and upbeat, and the same when he handed me the sub over the deli counter. (In my experience, deli personnel can be cranky.)
This sandwich was ready for its closeup. Is one of the deli guys a food stylist?
The bread looked more like a conventional sub roll than the one from Mazzaro’s. The menu made no claims that it was baked in-house, and I didn’t ask.
Texture and Taste
The bread tasted like it looked, with perhaps a bit more heft than the conventional airy sub roll. My first bite was a big bite, which is to say that I could get my mouth around it.
The ham was the most prominent flavor, with the cheese taking a backseat, both of which were fine by me. This Italian sub was one of the spiciest that I’ve tried (I suspect it was the capicola), even leaving a trace of heat in my mouth. That was fine by me, too.
The toppings were standard fare, as was the oil-and-vinegar dressing.
By the way, I slathered a healthy layer of mayo on both subs because other than peanut butter and jelly I can’t think of cold sandwich that I eat without mayo.
And the Winner of the Italian Sub Showdown Is …
Some readers may have predicted that this FFF would be no contest, what with an upstart rookie taking on a seasoned legend. But it was closer than I expected. DeCosmo made a yummy sub that’s a cut above most.
But Mazzaros’s had the more complex flavor, even if a couple of those flavors didn’t land well. And Mazzaro’s had the bread. How was DeCosmo supposed to compete with that bread?