What's the Beef?

beef hero

Come Saturday afternoon, there's a line out the door at Fiore's House of Quality in Hoboken, New Jersey. This Italian deli and grocery is nearly a century old, and the wooden shelves are neatly lined with cookies, anchovies, pastas in innumerable shapes, San Marzano tomatoes, well-browned loaves of semolina bread, and a Sicilian-style salad selection that includes baby octopi swimming in oil, vinegary shaved artichokes, and stuffed green and red cherry peppers that bring a prodigious burn to the lips.

But the line of supplicants is not there for the groceries, or even for the salamis and cured hams. Rather, the Jerseyites are waiting patiently for Fiore's warm hero of the day. Thursdays and Saturdays it's the Italian roast beef hero, an imperially long baguette heaped with the deli's fluffy homemade mozzarella, slices of well-caramelized roast beef still faintly pink in the middle and way tender, and a carefully dribbled ladle of gravy, which softens the chewiness of the semolina loaf. The finished product is cut down the middle and wrapped in white butcher paper for off-premises consumption. Of course, some patrons rip off the paper and wolf down the sandwich standing in the street just outside the store.

Fiore’s sign

Though the Italian roast beef hero has its antecedents in the delis of Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge, in Brooklyn, and even in the Little Italy west of Chicago's Loop, this version in the obscure back streets of Hoboken, where Frank Sinatra is still regarded as the neighborhood's number one homey, is my favorite. The sandwich represents the coming up of immigrants from southern Italy, who found themselves newly able to afford such a sumptuous accretion of meat and cheese.

Though adapted for Italian-American usages, the baguette remains fundamentally French, while the gravy is ineffably English, and—well, let's just say roast beef is not something you're likely to find anywhere in Italy, though a prosciutto gets roasted now and again. The mozzarella is a dead ringer for the fiore di latte of Naples.

It may take me me almost an hour of travel each way to get this New World fusion sandwich, but I manage to eat at least one a month.

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