Location: 312 St. John Street
Notes: Talking about the sandwiches being cranked out by Amato’s is fraught with peril. The 105-year-old sandwich shop, which has spawned a chain of dozens of locations throughout New England, is as sacred a cow as you are likely to find in Maine, right up there with “Proper Lobster Roll Preparation” and “Grange Hall Etiquette,” in terms of the passion with which people discuss these sandwiches.
The first thing that needs to be mentioned is that, in Maine, any long sandwich with meat and vegetables on it is likely to be referred to by the generic term, “Italian,” the way other regions might make reference to hoagies, heroes, or grinders, though I have never heard anyone actually use the term “grinder.” Amato’s lays claim to having invented the “Real Italian,” though the idea that they were the first to lay meat on bread in this specific way seems questionable. At Amato’s, and throughout Maine, to order a “Ham Italian” would be redundant; the ham is implied (the best ham always is), and included automatically, unless you were to specifically request a “Turkey Italian.” This can get confusing in some shops, such as Amato’s and the West End Deli, where ordering a combination sandwich using this naming convention would require you to (somewhat awkwardly) ask for a “Italian Cold Cut Combo Italian,” but, for the purposes of this review, we will stick with the tried-and-true: The Amato’s Original, with everything.
The second thing you need to know about the Amato’s “Original” Italian is that there’s not much about it that I would associate with my thoughts of “Italian” food. The ingredients are not that special. Amato’s bakes their own bread, a soft, chewy, white loaf, split lengthwise and flayed open to act as more of a tray for its fillings, than an enclosure. A thin layer of nondescript, white (American?) cheese is laid along the bottom, followed by a thin layer of rectangular ham. There is a sprinkling of raw, crunchy white onion and raw green bell pepper slices. Then, all hell breaks loose, as tomatoes and slices of pickle are shaved in mid-air, above your sandwich, falling where they may, in irregular chunks, and at great personal risk to the sandwich maker. A handful of black olives, salt, pepper, oil, and vinegar finish the sandwich.
That’s it. There’s nothing special, nothing fancy about these ingredients. The basic recipe seems to roughly follow the Subway technique for sandwich artistry, wherein individual sandwiches are completely indistinct from one another. A roast beef sandwich tastes like a turkey sandwich tastes like a salami sandwich, and instead of flavors, your sandwich satisfaction is reduced to the pleasing contrasts in texture: Soft layer, wet layer, crunchy layer, wet layer, soft layer.
The final thing, however, that you need to know about the “Original” Italian from Amato’s, is that they are like crack frigging cocaine, and when I say that, it is quite literally because after having my first one, I felt like a giant, omniscient being had grabbed me by the chest, pulled me through a wooshing tunnel of blurred, misconceived reality, setting me on my feet with new eyes, blinking back tears at the new world that lay before me, yet frustratingly just out of my grasp. I instantly began planning when I would have my next fix, I would have stolen from friends and family or sold my body on the street to get the money, and I realized that I would never again feel as much joy in my heart as I did after that first bite, destined to forever chase that first, elusive high. (Crack smokers? Are you with me?) They are absolutely delicious, and I can only guess that there is something chemical at work to make me think so. The ingredients certainly aren’t special, but there is a freshness to the assembled whole that other mass sandwich shops can’t hope to reproduce. The overpowering flavors of the raw vegetables snap and burst in your mouth, the pickles have a wonderful tartness, and the juice of the tomatoes runs all over everything. I am also completely smitten with the two other major features of this sandwich: The extreme saltiness, and the black olives, two things that I don’t care about under any other circumstances.
It’s a little lowbrow. It certainly barely qualifies as “Italian” food. It also happens to be stunningly, mysteriously delicious; several factors greater than the sum of its parts, in spite of individual components that you would turn your nose up at. For the second day in a row, I bought a “large,” intending to eat half for lunch today, and half tomorrow. Instead, I didn’t even make it to the table, inhaling the whole sandwich while standing over the sink.