If you live in New York, it's a hero. In Philly, a hoagie. In New England, a grinder. That last is what you're going to learn here today. I come from Connecticut, a state that gave the world three things: submarines, submarine sandwiches, and Subway restaurants. (We also gave you hamburgers and pizza, so you're welcome for everything.) I may not know how to rivet a submarine hull, but I sure can teach you the art of a Damn Good Submarine Sandwich.
Bread: First things first: you're going to want to find an Italian bakery, or a Greek place willing to pretend. Soft on the inside, crusty on the outside. You shouldn't be able to eat this sammich without scattering chips of crust everywhere. This is not a dainty sandwich, but a game-day sub. Italian bread is the first choice, but you can make do with one of the thicker baguettes. The important thing is the inside be soft enough to make room for the ingredients, spongy enough to absorb all the flavor, and sturdy enough to give your jaw a workout. The bread is everything. It's what makes my little state the best at this business. My old man taught me how important this is when he brought me fifty miles from home to get the right grinder bread, but I'm not gonna lie: some of the best loaves in America are baked in the Bronx's Arthur Avenue, not Connecticut. This is acceptable, since it improves the sandwich.
Condiment: Olive oil and a red wine vinaigrette (balsamic works too). You're going to be grateful for that thick hide on the bread when these stay trapped inside the still-crunchy loaf. Sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper, and some crushed red pepper flakes if you like a little zip. Me, I get all the heat I need from the cold cuts. Put these directly on the bread. Depending on who's making your dressing, the olive oil may be seasoned with some basil, oregano and rosemary. Don't ever let anybody put mayo on this sandwich. That's just disrespectful to the meat.
Meat:You want Italian cold cuts (salumi), which means pork. Germany produces a lot of fine styles of processed meat that go well on a nice, square sandwich just right on some days, but this is a grinder, for crying out loud. You must unwrap it like a present, swaddled in butcher's paper that sings its greasy promise through translucent, fat-glazed stains.
--Ham: Much like your girlfriend, ham comes from the rear. A basic ham lies well in a grinder, being one of the richer meats that still has a very basic flavor. Spread it out in a footlong sub and watch it enrich the ingredients while keeping the best curvature of flavor for itself.
--Capicola: Oh man, if prosciutto were found on the neck, this would be it. But it's not, and that's what makes it the best choice for your sub. A little less velvety, and often spicier than its cousin, capicola is the perfect grinder meat. This is the grub that put the gabbagool in gobs across the globe. The truth is a rich cut like prosciut' should reside in a smaller sandwich where it can be the belle of the ball, but capicola is hearty yet delicious, much less of a primadonna. Prosciutto is Veronica; Capicola is Betty.
--Soppressata: It's sort of like pepperoni if you could eat a footlong sandwich's worth of that without belching clouds of spicy grease afterward. Like capicola, it's a little milder than its famous counterpart, so it really takes well to the mix of flavors.
--Salami: We all know salami. It's strong, meaty goodness. Eating salami is like lusting for Christina Hendricks: either you can't help yourself, or you don't understand anything about what's good in life.
--Mortadella: Before "Italian food" meant tomatoes and pasta, mortadella was there, sustaining life in Antiquity. It is to balogna what The Pixies are to Bush -- the inspiration behind Nirvana (and when you've had mortadella, you will definitely experience nirvana). For some bizarre reason when ripping off mortadella and calling it balogna, America omitted all the hearty cubes of fat, which is like 9/10 of why you're eating pork in the first place.
--Turkey: Some days you may not feel like eating pork. It may be a religious thing, you could be vegetarian, or you might just want to give yourself a day off so you can miss it that much more. Make sure you get the right kind of turkey. Save the maple or honey-glazed cut for a wheatbread sandwich one autumn day, and get yourself a slice of cracked-pepper turkey breast. This also goes well with your sharper cheeses: cheddar, pepperjack.
Cheese: Italian ham and provolone go together like Maxim and half-naked women. Sure, it might be familiar ground, but it'd be offensive not to have the combination. If you're serving the sandwich cold, it almost has to be provolone.
Vegetables: If you're like me, you tell Subway to just let it ride on the toppings until there's no room left in the sandwich, but to make a basic Connecticut grinder, you only need two vegetables.
--Shredded iceberg lettuce is a must, because that has the least nutritional value. This should be chopped into ribbons so thin they make ninjas nervous. Some places will add a touch of the sandwich dressing here.
--Tomatoes: The key component. You want a nice, meaty tomato, get some salt and pepper on there to draw out the flavor. These go on the sandwich last so the bread can absorb the juice. You never want to keep tomatoes apart from from oil, salt, and vinegar. That's just unromantic.
--Black olives: Optional, but a nice touch.
There are common variations (roasted peppers, mozzarella, green olives, sliced onions, toasting the sandwich), but they lie in idiosyncratic terrain. Nothing wrong with experimentation; it's what puts sandwich shops on the map. Just remember the basics, and you can say you know how to make a Damn Good Connecticut Grinder.
Brendan McGinley lives, cooks and seduces your woman in New York, but is frequently found eating grinders along the Connecticut shore.