Thanks to creative restaurants and chefs, the humble sandwich has come into its own

Pastrami, sopressata, roast turkey and provolone. Olive oil, mayonnaise, spicy brown mustard and balsamic vinegar. These are the makings of a stellar sandwich, whether they’re packed in a sub or steak roll, stacked on whole wheat or presented as a panini.
From upscale restaurants to corner sub shops, the sandwich appears on most Delaware eateries’ menus. V&M Bistro, which opened in September on Marsh Road in Brandywine Hundred, features roast beef with sharp provolone and long hots on an artesian roll.
The grill menu at nearby Harry’s Savoy Grill—you may need to ask for it in the dining room—offers the New England lobster roll, a chicken cheesesteak with mushrooms, and a hot roast beef sandwich with onion rings and aged cheddar.

Like burgers and pizzas, the sandwich is now a platform for creativity.

An old love affair

The sandwich is likely named for John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich (1718–92), who supposedly invented it. Yet even before the 18th century, people used bread to scoop up stews or wrap around meat or cheese.

Basically, a sandwich is meat and/or other ingredients placed between bread or on a roll. It’s portable and easy to eat with your hands. (Clutch a turkey sub in one hand while cheering the Eagles with the other.) But there are wonderfully sloppy versions that require a knife and fork.

Many regions have a signature sandwich: the lobster roll in Maine; the hot brown sandwich in Louisville (turkey, bacon and Moray sauce browned in the oven); the muffuletta in New Orleans (olive salad and Italian meats on a round roll); and the “barbecued” chipped ham in Pittsburgh.

In the Delaware area—where there seems to be a sub shop on every corner, particularly in New Castle County—sandwiches frequently have an Italian heritage. They’re dubbed a sub or a hoagie, depending on how close the shop is to Philly.

Casapulla's Italian sub is a classic, long-time local favorite. (Photo by O&A)

Casapulla’s Italian sub is a classic, long-time local favorite. (Photo by O&A)

Casapulla’s, a family-owned chain, is known for its Italian sub. You can also get sandwiches with the expected Italian-American fillings: meatball and cheese, sausage (hot or sweet), and pepperoni and egg.

But even the traditional is getting tweaked. Café Sitaly, which this summer opened on Naamans Road in European Bistro’s old spot, shakes things up with a chicken cacciatore steak sandwich (fried onions, mushrooms, sweet peppers and marinara sauce) and a bacon-cheddar cheesesteak.

Durney’s Deli in Wilmington’s Little Italy features the “original” hoagie: ham, capicola, prosciutto, hard salami and provolone on a seeded roll. It has a chewier texture than most hoagies.

Owner Nancy Durney’s “Ultimate” hoagie includes hot pepper jack cheese and spicy Cajun mayo with the customer’s choice of turkey, Italian meats, albacore tuna, or roast beef. (Beef and pork are roasted on site, and Durney also pounds and breads the chicken cutlets.)

Everything but the kitchen sink

No sub shop, however, has bucked the norm quite like Capriotti’s, which was started in Little Italy in 1976 by Lois and Alan Margolet, who named it for their mother’s family. To differentiate themselves, the siblings offered fresh turkey subs, which they made from turkey roasted and shredded onsite. They started with one turkey a day, but they were soon using 12 turkeys daily to keep up with sales.

Capriotti's legendary "Bobbie" includes turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce in a sub roll. (Photo provided by Capriotti's)

Capriotti’s legendary “Bobbie” includes turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce in a sub roll. (Photo provided by Capriotti’s)

Capriotti’s “Bobbie” is now legendary. Roast turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce practically spills from a sub roll. Another favorite is the “Capastrami”: hot pastrami, Swiss cheese, Russian dressing, coleslaw.

Dreamer’s Café in the Holly Oak/Bellefonte area has a similar sandwich. Known as The Gobbler, it features roast turkey, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, bread stuffing, mayo, and cranberry on wheat bread.

The family-owned café, which opened in 2005, along with Purebread Deli + Cafe, which opened in 2001, were among the first to focus on gourmet sandwiches and not subs. “Subs had been done,” says Mike Nardozzi, owner of Purebread.

Dreamer’s Café’s colorfully named club-style sandwiches, made with three pieces of bread, allow for layering. The “Twin Peaks” combines egg salad, tuna salad, lettuce, tomato, bacon, and American cheese. “Super Mario” packs together roast turkey, ham, roast beef, provolone, roasted red peppers, spinach, onions, and pesto mayo on pumpernickel.
Purebread, which seeks to fill orders in less than five minutes, limits most concoctions to meat or seafood, cheese, a spread or condiment, and an added flavor boost from such items as avocado, lettuce, or hot peppers.

“We try to get as few ingredients as possible that blend together to make an awesome sandwich,” Nardozzi says. “The goal is to produce harmonious flavors.”
He points to the popular “French Poodle”: turkey, brie, sundried tomatoes, spinach and champagne mustard on a baguette. The most popular sandwich, the “Jack Russell,” is a grilled panini with chicken, bacon, cheddar cheese, peppercorn ranch dressing, and cheddar bread.

The "Jack Russell," a grilled panini with chicken, bacon, cheddar cheese, peppercorn and ranch dressing, is PureBread's most popular sandwich. (Photo provided by PureBread Deli + Cafe)

The “Jack Russell,” a grilled panini with chicken, bacon, cheddar cheese, peppercorn and ranch dressing, is PureBread’s most popular sandwich. (Photo provided by PureBread Deli + Cafe)

Upscale Attitude

Purebread is starting to emphasize its farm-to-table fresh approach, and Drip Café in Pike Creek also keeps it simple but exceptional. The “Chicken Waldorf” is made with free-range chicken, grapes, candied pecans, and baby arugula. It’s served with a splash of citrus dressing on a croissant. “There’s an inherent sweetness throughout,” says owner Greg Vogeley. “Then you have the citrus, the peppery arugula, and the buttery croissant.” He calls the flavor combination a “complete sandwich.”

Like Drip Café, Fresh Thymes Café in the Forty Acres/Trolley Square area of Wilmington favors a sophisticated twist. The grilled cheese is made with Lancaster garlic-and-chive cheddar and tomato. “It’s actual cheese, not processed cheese,” says owner Jenn Adams. “People are always wowed by how wonderful it tastes.” “The Suzie” is made with organic chicken salad and bacon on cinnamon-wheat toast.

At Maiale, on Lancaster Pike, the sausage is the star. Take the “Mexicano,” made with fire-roasted corn and poblano sausage, cheddar cheese, and chipotle mayo. Owner Billy Rawstrom dresses his Thai curry chicken sausage with Asian slaw and sriracha-lime sauce.
Some restaurants have been taking it up a notch. Chef-owner Donny Merrill at Skipjack in Newark has a host of hot sandwiches for the season, including a grilled cheese sandwich with duck bacon, roasted Honeycrisp apples, brie, and roasted garlic butter, served on a brioche bun.

The most popular combination, he says, is the slow-smoked beef brisket with onion rings and a jalapeno-beer cheese fondue. (Sandwiches are available on gluten-free bread or in a tortilla wrap.)

The more exotic or organic the ingredients, the higher the price tag. The “Chicken Waldorf” sandwich at Drip Café is $9.50, and it comes with house-made rosemary bagel chips or a seasonal side. You can upgrade to sweet potato fries or a mixed green salad for $3.

“We want to give them more so they leave satisfied,” Vogeley says. “The price reflects the sourcing of the ingredients and the work that goes into making the sandwich.”
Fresh Thymes’ sandwiches, priced from $9 to $17, come with chips or a mini salad. Or customers can upgrade to tabbouleh for $2.

So how do shops and restaurants come up with these creations? Vogeley’s staff all offer ideas. Adams and her team take note of customer suggestions and substitutions. The “Jim”—Tuscan bread topped with smoked salmon, pesto, spinach, and tomato, then grilled—was a customer’s idea.

Necessity is also the mother of invention. “At the end of the day, we’re so hungry,” Adams says. “We’ve watched things go out of the kitchen. So we combine everything that looks good to us on bread and that’s how we wind up with some of our best creations.”
Who knows where this culinary creativity may lead the humble sandwich. Stay tuned.

Pam George
Pam George has been writing about the Delaware dining scene for more than 15 years. She also writes on travel, health, business and history. In addition to Delaware newspapers and magazines, she’s been published in Men’s Health, Fortune, USA Today and US Airways Magazine. She’s the author of “Shipwrecks of the Delaware Coast: Tales of Pirates, Squalls and Treasure,” “Landmarks & Legacies: Exploring Historic Delaware,” and “First State Plates: Iconic Delaware Restaurants and Recipes.” She lives in Wilmington and Lewes.