A Tale of Two Sandwiches
by Peter Zelchenko May 1, 2009
The neighborhood just knew it as "SUBS," because of the huge neon sign in the front window. All four of my brothers and sisters worked there during the first few years, because even a kid could make a good sandwich. I cooked in other restaurants on the block, not there. But the window seat next to the jukebox belonged to us neighborhood kids. SUBS was our hangout.
Now a major conglomerate, SUBS -- better known as Potbelly Sandwich Works -- was opened on Lincoln Avenue in 1977 by brothers Art and Pete Hastings, and Pete's wife Laura. This was Lincoln Park during the 20-year transition from slum, to bohemia, to high art, to chrome-plated gotta-love-it yuppiedom. You never thought gentrification had that many phases, but it does. Probably more. We were in the high-art period, seeing quaint restaurants and storefront art and craft shops on the rise. A kind of frugal, down-home naturalism -- about the middle-class point from commune homemade granola to Whole Foods glory -- was in vogue.
In that spirit, Pete loved restoring old potbelly stoves, used to cart them around in his green antique Ford truck. He and Laura had failed at selling antiques and they and Art decided to open a store on Lincoln Avenue to sell sandwiches. College-educated, the three analyzed the Italian subs in Little Italy. The best of these sandwiches was -- and still is -- made by Jimmy Fontano.
(I don't think the antique shop was in that location. Also, somehow the history never mentions Art Hastings, but he was there working his ass off every day and so deserves some credit.)
It's well known that the "frugal, down-home naturalism" I mention is long lost at Potbelly. During lunchtime, a line of eight workers can build 300 subs an hour at their biggest stores, and each of the eight may go through fifty pairs of plastic gloves in that hour. Wow, that's 800 gloves an hour.
At Potbelly, there are two holes for your garbage, "glass" and "trash," duplicating the original design formula. But it all goes into the same bag underneath. By the 1980s, Pete, Laura, and Art had jettisoned the long Gonella bread loaves -- a must for a properly chewy Italian sub -- preferring individually manufactured rolls, replete with dough conditioners and preservatives, in large plastic bags. They dump gallons of soup into the trash every night because of their sanitation policy. Most recently, they got rid of the reusable trays and now use disposable.
Let's face it: Over the past 32 years, Potbelly's changed.
Jimmy Fontano didn't change. I saw him yesterday, making sausage in the window of Fontano's at Aberdeen and Polk. He told me he's been making Italian sandwiches there for over 30 years, and I'm a living witness. I remember him from back when he was skinny. That was around the time Potbelly opened its doors. A lot of changes happened to Potbelly's sandwich after all these years. But the Fontano's sandwich hasn't changed. And Jimmy has hardly changed, except those few inches around the middle. And Jimmy doesn't wear gloves.
The Hastingses are long gone. I couldn't even begin to locate them right now. But when I called Fontano's early this morning, Jim picked up the phone. When I asked to talk to his brother Neil to get the giardiniera recipe, I got a call back in two minutes. Neil was about to take his dad to their place in Michigan, but he had a few minutes to chat.
Neil told me that grandparents Vince and Mary opened the store in 1928 and made the first Italian ice in the neighborhood. This was a time when there was a mom-and-pop supermarket quite literally on every corner in this city. Vince and Mary's little place was at Aberdeen and Polk and it still is. By the 1960s, when son Aniello (Nello or "Red") and his wife Gilda were running the store, these little markets were closing, expanding, consolidating, but there was still one every two or three blocks to serve the community. Fontano's is one of only a dozen or so citywide that haven't moved or sprawled.
There are four brothers -- Jimmy, Dominic, John, Neil -- and sister Mary, named for her grandmother. "My brothers and I to this day, we work together," said Neil. Three of them live within walking distance of each other out in Addison; the kids attend the same school. Steady Jim still lives across the street. "He has a tough commute," joked Neil.
"We even spend our weekends together in our summer house in Michigan," Neil said.
They have a modest seven stores, several of them run by the family. (Potbelly has over 200.) Even with only seven, they still have buying power, Neil says. So, for example, they can pressure their cappicola supplier to work with a distributor nearby the store to get the same meat there. While the sandwich recipe is highly consistent across stores, each store is allowed its own atmosphere, unlike Potbelly, where the stain on the railings could well be a PANTONE color matched to the original.
Neil admits he's got the more worldly work role. "I have the luxury of coming in in the morning, saying hi, checking the franchises." He pushes paper while the others do the heavier lifting. He studied business -- guess where? -- around the corner at UIC.
I'm not saying Potbelly's sandwich is bad. It's one of the best. But it's a highly modified derivative, originally imported from authentic sources, in the same way Chicago-style blues migrated up here onto the same block, from the South Side. And the authentic source for the Potbelly sandwich was Little Italy -- from the bread-slicing jig, to the Gonella bread, to the salami and mayo, to the paper wrapper.
The very best Italian submarine sandwich in Chicago is a direct product of the turmoil that destroyed much of Little Italy in the 1960s, as Daddy Daley and UIC made their grand plans while brave neighbors like Florence Scala tried to fight them off.
"We had to change when we went from an Italian neighborhood to when the University came in, because they knocked down all those homes," said Neil. Just a block east of the store, thousands of their customers were pushed out. They had to adapt. "We started feeding the workers at UIC" to make enough money to keep the store open.
The Fontano's grocery is well off the beaten path of Taylor Street with its white tablecloths. It's pretty much the same as I remember from boyhood, except they've put in a few lunch tables in the grocery aisles. They still use the bread-slicing jig, a design that Potbelly originally duplicated and promptly discarded. Aunt Carm's shop across the street is still making the Italian ice the grandparents made popular in the 1920s. And the corner is still a kind of picket-fenced Dick and Jane place, the old neighborhood, respectfully quiet on a sunny afternoon. An old Italian man will amble by the window, and Jimmy Fontano will wave back. And Jimmy Fontano is still making sandwiches.
Thank God for Jimmy Fontano.
RECIPE: Fontano's giardiniera
(This is different from what Neil told me a few years ago; when I dig that up I'll compare. Both are standard salt-to-oil preparations common to almost all pickling. This is, after all, a pickling or preserving recipe, where the bacterial growth in the vegetables is greatly decreased by using the salt to exchange most of the bacterial water with something far more hostile to growth, namely acid and salt. Sometimes foods are also kept in a salt and/or vinegar brine, but here we use oil, to keep oxygen out.)
smaller amount of celery
smaller amount of green pimiento olives
(carrots, cauliflower optional)
slice all pretty thin
peppers only in salt and vinegar; brine a week maybe
drain 'em, wash 'em
add celery and olives, mix all together
add spices: salt (not much), black pepper, garlic, oregano
put in jars
top with oil
leave open to let air escape for a few days
EXTRA CREDIT: Italian submarine sandwich
cut Italian bread into desired length, slit open and lay flat
layer deli meat and cheese of almost any kind, the more Italian the better (decent ham and salami, provolone, cappicola sausage, roast beef, American cheese, etc.)
top with shredded lettuce, sliced tomato, giardiniera
squirt oil-vinegar-salt-pepper-oregano dressing
(Any food snob who dares waste good prosciutto, cacciocavallo cheese, or other fine product in such a sandwich just doesn't get it. At a certain point, you arrive at the best of neighborhood food, and it doesn't get better by gilding the lily with snobbery, it gets worse, and it wastes fine foods that should not be buried in other flavors. You should, however, try to get good, fresh Italian bread, like Gonella or Turano.)
(c) 2003-2009, Peter Zelchenko and Gapers Block