In Eater LA’s ongoing series, Highly Opinionated, Eater editors delve into one specific, oft-debated food obsession in Los Angeles. This month we take on Italian deli sandwiches, from old-school classics to plenty of newer contenders. Here now, one editor’s favorite Italian deli sandwiches in Los Angeles.
The Italian deli sandwich, often served in submarine or hero form, is beloved by Angelenos. Supposedly invented by Amato’s in Portland, Maine, the sandwich incorporates a combination of mortadella, salami, capicola, prosciutto, and provolone or Swiss cheese placed in a tender white roll or Italian loaf.
Many connoisseurs in LA will claim Santa Monica’s Bay Cities Italian Deli has the city’s best Italian sandwich. And it is a good sandwich, with its wonderfully crusty loaves framing the terrific combination of cold cuts under a layer of peppers and shredded lettuce, with requisite moisture provided by mayonnaise, mustard, and Italian dressing. But while I do enjoy Bay Cities, it isn’t my favorite.
Why you should trust me: Growing up, my neighborhood Italian deli was Mario’s in Glendale, home of the tri-level, bready sandwich that still satisfies. Over the years, my love for Italian sandwiches stayed strong, and today I try to get the most iconic versions of them wherever I go in LA. To me, they make for the perfect lunch. I dream about the best ratio of meats to dressings to bread. I’m also that guy who’s brave enough to ask famed octogenarian Rosario Mazzeo to prepare a special double-meat sandwich at Roma Deli in Pasadena because I think twice the amount of freshly sliced meats makes for a better version of the classic, often pre-made, sandwich. He scowls but begrudgingly obliges, and I thank him profusely.
The overall favorite: Cosa Buona’s Stepmother
Up until a few months ago, Cosa Buona baked ciabatta loaves for this sandwich. But since they make Sicilian pizzas, chef de cuisine Danny Chavez suggested chef/owner Zach Pollack use divided focaccia slices, as they were already making the dough.
The focaccia was easier to make consistently over the ciabatta, which was sometimes too dense. And while the move to focaccia disqualifies the Stepmother as a submarine, it still manages to be the most delicious Italian cold-cut sandwich I’ve had in Los Angeles.
I prefer this sandwich for its stack of mortadella, salami, capicola, and prosciutto, sliced to order, and placed beneath all the pickled peppers and dressed iceberg lettuce. The small-producer cold cuts, snappy and fresh but not overly salty, work in tandem with the smears of mustard and mayo on the top and bottom to create a delightful bite, with the rich olive oil-infused focaccia keeping it all together. It’s not a typical submarine sandwich, but you won’t care after taking a bite.
The upscale version: Heroic Italian’s OMG Sandwich
Recently relegated to a small takeout-only spot on La Cienega, Heroic Italian still makes a thoughtful, if potentially over-the-top Italian sandwich that reflects its Falstaffian creator, Jeffrey Merrihue. The OMG uses a soft, airy Bread Lounge ciabatta that doesn’t overwhelm the sandwich’s contents: Italian prosciutto, spicy salami, capicola, mortadella, porchetta, smoked mozzarella, artichokes, and giardiniera. Then he tops that with roasted tomatoes before smearing it with black truffle mayo. Merrihue says the key is the mild toasting that crisps the outside of the ciabatta but keeps everything inside pliable and easy to bite into. It’s a pretty small sandwich and something that won’t weigh you down after lunch. Ask for a side of Calabrian chile sauce for an extra spicy kick.
The enduring old-school classic: Italia Deli in Agoura Hills
Open since 1981, this old-school deli garners long lines for lunch, and for good reason. Leaning on soft rolls and sliced Boar’s Head meats, this is simplicity at its finest, with mortadella, cotto salami, dry salami, and provolone (or Swiss), folded over and placed in between onions, tomato, and lettuce with mayo, mustard, and dressing. The house bread just crisped on the outside but squishy on the inside helps to amplify the contents. What makes this sandwich special is the ratio and size, designed and constructed to a kind of platonic ideal. The standardized ingredients prevent it from standing out compared to some more cheffed up versions with imported meats or different bread, but Italia Deli manages to find a satisfying middle ground. (Note, there’s a location in Granada Hills as well)