Bite Me!

From Cleveland's lunch pails to Slyman's corned beef to a Puerto Rican jibarito, we eat up our town's fascination with a lunch that's better than sliced bread.

A 'Meaty' Study

I asked some Clevelanders to describe their favorite sandwich in an unscientific and not quite random survey, producing fascinating, informative and inspirational results. The data, however, had to be adjusted to reflect the fact that I neglected to tell my subjects that hamburgers and hot dogs, which I believe represent a category all their own, were not to be included. In other words, I threw out those answers.

Favorite Fillings

• peanut butter
• cream cheese

Analysis: I thought most grown-ups would have moved on to things like Brie and grilled portabella mushrooms. But these old standbys apparently earn their place in the pantheon of fillings because they take people back to the lunchboxes from which they sprang — or because both are inexpensive compared to roast Kobe beef.

• melted cheese

Analysis: Lactose intolerance is not a big issue. Most respondents mentioned cheese and a significantly large percentage waxed poetic about what happens when it's heated. Vegetarian Marcie Goodman, executive director of the Cleveland Film Society, describes herself as a big fan of Tommy's "Zippy" (toasted pita bread, fresh vegetables, melted cheese and sunflower seeds). "Sometimes, the cheese escapes from the sandwich and sort of gets burnt on the grill. That's definitely my favorite part," she says.

• potato chips and pickles

Analysis: Crunch is an important quality, so the chips and the kosher dills go in, not beside, the sandwich. Who knew?

Unlikely Combos

What's beloved by one person may be unappealing to the rest of us. Here are two case studies.

• "I grew up thinking cream cheese was for cream cheese and jelly sandwiches," says Cleveland publisher David Gray. "When I saw a co-worker eating cream cheese and salami, I thought it was weird — until I tasted it. Now, I eat lots of cream cheese and salami sandwiches with thinly sliced red onion on wheat bread. I've realized maybe cream cheese and jelly was the weird combination." (Note: I've realized that I'm not ever going to accept an invitation to David's house for lunch.)

• The hands-down weirdest sandwich was labeled "a childhood indulgence": Kraft Miracle Whip on white bread with a drizzle of chocolate syrup. The respondent, who asked to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, was adamant that there is "something wonderful" about the combination of tart and sweet flavors. But I have my doubts. (Note: Don't let this individual make me a sandwich, ever.)

In Search of Sandwich Bliss

Sandwiches are served almost everywhere food is put on a plate. But there are some notable sandwich destinations around town. Check out these spots and their mouthwatering, custom-made creations. Now that the anti-carb craze is on the wane, we can once again have our bread and enjoy it, too.

La Bodega
869 Jefferson Ave., Tremont, (216) 621-7075

The possibilities are deliciously overwhelming with almost 50 different sandwich combinations made with meat, fish, cheese and vegetables on the regular menu, from the homey ham-and-Swiss to a sophisticated roast beef with bleu cheese and horseradish mayo. Personalize by selecting from a dozen kinds of bread. If they're not too busy, you can even go off-menu and really have it your way, requesting the caramelized onions that usually come with the smoked gouda and turkey to be added to your curry-chicken salad wrap.

Co-owner Mike Weigand says customer opinions determine which specials ultimately make it to the permanent menu. If you do your part, maybe future diners will enjoy turkey with guacamole, Jack cheddar, tomatoes and salsa-ranch dressing on a sub roll. Mostly a takeout operation with 12 to 15 seats inside, more tables appear outside in good weather. Urban charm and friendly service come with every order.

"Foodies know they'll find something special here," says Weigand, "but people who are just plain hungry can get a big, fat, 2-pound Italian sub."

Presto Sandwiches
21984 Lorain Road, Fairview Park, (440) 356-6320

Fred Shanahan's not the kind of guy who judges a book by its cover. His working mantra — "It's what's on the inside that counts" — proves it. So his sandwiches, assembled on sub rolls or tomato-flavored wraps, are all about the luscious, original fillings. His common creations with a twist include a chicken sandwich with a splash of hot sauce and zesty bleu cheese, and potato salad spiked with bacon and roasted garlic. Shanahan's friend Michael Symon, of Lola fame, helped design the menu to offer upscale style at luncheonette prices.

Shanahan's catchy names grab your attention. The Big Mensch piles pastrami, spicy slaw, Swiss and smoky chipotle mayo. The Warrior reflects Shanahan's own preferences — three kinds of meat plus cheese — the sort of thing Genghis Khan would have liked. The comfortable and contemporary 26-seat shop opened late last August as a place for hanging out. Shanahan, who says he's "not a fancy, sit-down restaurant kind of a guy," started the business because he liked the idea of pairing casual on-the-go eating with the concept of fine food made well with really fresh and flavorful ingredients.

1824 Coventry Road, Cleveland Heights, (216) 321-7757

Although turkey, chicken, tuna, ham and corned beef have their place on Tommy Fello's menu, there's no arguing that his restaurant is a haven for non-meat eaters and vegans. About 50 sandwiches feature protein substitutes such as tofu, tempeh, seitan and falafel. Throw in baba ghanouj or hummus for more variety and be amazed at the ways the kitchen plays with vegetables, sprouts, seeds and cheese. You can even get salad in a pita sandwich. Regulars aspire to have a combination named after them — Lynne, Donovan and Aunt Rose have already succeeded; you could be next.

Artefino Art Gallery Café
1900 Superior Ave., Cleveland,
(216) 830-1400

Jackson Pollack, Leonardo daVinci, Pablo Picasso, Romare Bearden, Frida Kahlo, Georgia O'Keeffe and Andy Warhol aren't just artists. They're also sandwiches — good ones, too. Hector Vega got playful when it came to naming his wife Monica's culinary creations for their gallery/cafe in the restored Tower Press Building downtown.

Behind those clever monikers are scrumptious ingredients such as roasted red peppers, sun-dried tomato pesto and guava jelly. It seemed fitting, says Vega, an accomplished painter himself, because "the idea behind this place is to lure people in with good food, then expose them to great art while they're here." Handles for the hot panini versions have their own stories. The Vieques, made with roast pork, turkey, ham and Swiss, commemorates the Puerto Rican island where the couple were married last July. The Media Luna, a combination of moist grilled chicken, ham, cheddar, lettuce and tomato, was something they ate there often. And the triestina — ham, mozzarella, lettuce, tomato and pesto mayo — pays homage to Monica's family roots in the Italian city of Trieste.

Planned for this summer, as part of Art Jam, the cafe will host the first-ever Cleveland Sandwich Slam. Local chefs will be invited to compete for the title Best Sandwich, and the top three winners will be added to Artefino's menu.

A Sandwich by Any Other Name

Ethnic cuisines say "sandwich" many different ways: tortas, gyros, Cubanos, burritos. At Rincon Criollo, (6504 Detroit Ave.), order a jibarito and you get steak tips between two slices of fried plantains, a Puerto Rican specialty. La Tortilla Feliz (2661 W. 14th St., Tremont) serves choripan, made with spicy Argentine sausage and pampas-style chimichurri parsley sauce. It also offers a lunchtime Guatemalan Del Mar sandwich, featuring creamy lobster between bread that's dipped in egg batter and fried. Ask for arayiss at Cedarland (9491 Euclid Ave.) and a hot baked pita arrives at the table stuffed with meat or a vegetable filling.

If you want it New Orleans style, try Fat Fish Blue (21 Prospect Ave.) or Russo's (4895 State Road, Peninsula) for a muffuletta, the meat-and-cheese combo made special by the addition of a tangy olive salad, or po' boys, a Southern delicacy of fried shrimp, oysters or catfish with remoulade.

Banh mi means French sandwich in Vietnamese and you'll find a wonderful version of this pÃ.té-on-a-roll combo at Pho Hoa (3030 Superior, inside Golden Plaza). Sandwiches at Lelolai Bakery and Cafe (1889 W. 25th St.), such as the Cubano, are made on fresh-baked Caribbean bread with garlic sauce, filled with roast pork, ham and Swiss cheese and served warm.

What's in a Name

Though the notion of sticking something between slabs of bread is as likely as old as • well, bread, legend has it that the creation got its current name in the 18th century. It seems John Montagu, the fourth Earl of Sandwich, was a habitual gambler. When on a roll, the British statesman would keep going for hours, taking his meals at the gaming table. Two slices of bread proved just the thing for keeping the grease from meat and cheese off his cards.

The practice proved so handy that other players started requesting "the same as Sandwich," and from there it was only a short linguistic jump to having a sandwich. Some scholars contend this is a "schmear" on the hard-working cabinet minister's reputation, and that the practical arrangement of foodstuffs more likely originated to facilitate eating while at his desk. Whatever.

A corned beef sandwich from the original Otto Moser's downtown, the narrow little landmark on East Fourth Street — those were some sandwiches: made for meat lovers and pure Cleveland.

The beef was always warm and juicy with just the right amount of saltiness and fat. The rye was perfectly soft at the center and chewy around the edges. And I always had mine with a fishbowl of beer and a side of the house-special German potato salad, tangy with vinegar and studded with bacon.

Every sandwich came with a huge helping of atmosphere that no place else in town could duplicate, then or now. Sure, Moser's still exists in new digs on Playhouse Square and you can still get a corned beef on rye there. But it's just not the same as what they served at the old place.

The pre-1900 spot was dark, but not gloomy. Autographed playbills and fading photos of famous, not-so-famous and long-forgotten entertainers who'd eaten there covered the walls, turned sepia by decades of cigar smoke. A moth-eaten moose head, a hat hung jauntily from its antlers, watched over us, and a pair of deli guys stood in the front window, behind the long, scuffed mahogany bar, forking up and slicing steaming hunks of corned brisket. Waitresses called you "honey" and shouted out your order to them across the room and the meat men always got it right.

Damn, what I'd give to be sitting there again, biting into one of those sandwiches.

Those mounds of bovine bliss between slabs of rye were simple and unencumbered — like the men who worked Cleveland's factories when the city was booming. And with it, our sandwich lineage. We're talkin' serious cow town (and pig, chicken and turkey, too).

Just ask Dorothy Jaworski, whose husband, Fred, opened their meat market on Fleet Avenue in Cleveland's Slavic Village in 1935. Back then, housewives bought mostly baloney and salami to fill the sandwiches they packed in lunch pails and sent to work with husbands headed for blue-collar jobs in the Flats.

Baloney was cheap and salami wouldn't spoil in the summer heat, says Dorothy. Cold leftovers such as meatloaf and sausage were also popular.

"The neighborhood's changed over the years and people shop and eat differently these days," she says, noting that the market now offers a selection of premade sandwiches for customers. "But we still sell plenty of sliced cold cuts and our own homemade fresh and smoked kielbasa."

In 1959, "fancy" meant the Higbee Special Sandwich, which cost 90 cents. For your nine dimes, The Silver Grille piled Swiss cheese, Canadian bacon, white meat of turkey and Thousand Island dressing on buttered rye bread, then garnished it with tomato, a single black olive, a slice of hard-boiled egg and an extra strip of bacon on the side.

No restaurant gives you extra bacon anymore.

Heck, for our lunch we'll even pay more for those "chef-driven" sandwiches — unique combinations with exotic ingredients — such as Presto Sandwiches' "Yo!! Adrian," made with cappicola, mortadella, salami, roasted red peppers, onions, fresh mozzarella and basil-pesto mayo.

Still, our sandwich tradition is piled high. Getting your mouth around a Slyman's corned beef sandwich, featuring almost a pound of meat stacked more than 4 inches high, has been a bite of passage for 40 years. You don't have to eat the whole thing at a single sitting — only those with what's fondly called a hearty appetite can accomplish that. But if you want to run with the big dogs, you've got to open wide — really wide — for this one.

And for the full Cleveland experience (we're not talking white belt and white shoes, so relax), there's Frank Ratschki's bratwurst sandwich, found at the West Side Market.

The options can be recited in a single breath: hard or soft (the question refers to rolls), brown or yellow (mustard) and with or without (sauerkraut). Whatever your favored combination, it arrives in your hands piping hot and absolutely perfect, just as it has for 34 years. The really amazing part? They serve about 1,200 a week from a space slightly bigger than a bun.

So what is it about the sandwich that cuts the mustard (or mayo or pesto-basil spread) with so many Clevelanders? Why is some combination of bread and whatever so popular, whether you prefer a straight-ahead BLT made at the kitchen table or a more sophisticated chicken Caesar on a croissant prepared and plated by a restaurant pro?

Sure, the convenient grab-and-go, wrap-and-pack factor makes sandwiches ideal for our fast-paced, multitasking culture. But there's got to be more to our love affair with sandwiches than mere convenience.

For me, it's the Anything Factor, as in anything goes and don't be shy. The sandwich is just an idea. The rest is up to you.

Slather with mayonnaise. Slice off the crusts. Heat it so the cheese bubbles. Load on more than your share of rare roast beef. Fry an egg but don't overcook the yolk, so that the yellow leaks out into the bread and onto your chin. Put in so much stuff you have to hold it with two hands. Or cut it into tidy little triangles.

No rules apply to shape, size or ingredients. The basics — breads, spreads and fillings — provide endless opportunities for creativity and embellishment. A good sandwich can be assembled from the humblest components. A great one is a vehicle for self-expression, no recipe required. What other culinary option puts you in charge and lets you stack and pack so much variety — and quantity — in a single serving?

Whether you do it yourself or pay somebody else to do it for you, a sandwich is your chance to get what you want, exactly the way you want it. People are passionate and precise about their preferences.

And to prove it, we nibbled away at the whole-grain obsessions of some of Cleveland's other sandwich generation — those of us who were raised on or bow down in the court of John Montagu (a.k.a. the fourth Earl of Sandwich).

"You have to slice the olives into flat little circles and toss them over the cream cheese," says Jane Christyson, director of marketing and golf clubhouse services for Cleveland Metroparks, about her homemade cream cheese and pimento-stuffed green olive sandwich on soft white bread (though she's partial to Orlando's Italian).

"My mother used to make these sandwiches when I was a kid," Christyson recalls. "I always think of her when I eat one."

Terry Uhl, of The Uhl Group, a Cleveland-based communications agency, also owes thanks — a nutritionist might say blame — to Mom for his attraction to hot-from-the-skillet, thick-cut, hickory-smoked bacon on top of Extra Crunchy Jif peanut butter (from a just-opened jar) spread over lightly toasted Pepperidge Farm wheat bread. Clearly a man who has no fear of salt, he likes to enjoy it with a pickle and chips.

His peanut butter and bacon sandwich, a favorite of his maternal grandfather, "was invented long before people worried about fat, salt and calories," he says. "Now, it's a luxury I only allow myself once in a while, and I remember him fondly whenever I do."

Gail Bellamy's concoction has been evolving since she was a student at Ohio University. "Today's version is a combination of paper-thin slices of tomato, sweet onion, avocado and dill Havarti cheese," explains the managing editor/ food editor of Restaurant Hospitality Magazine. "It's served on multigrain bread; one slice is slathered with mayonnaise and the other with cream cheese. A sprinkling of sprouts goes in just before you put it all together."

A dreamwich for North Union Farmers Market manager Donita Anderson is made with — no surprise here — local products. It's an Italian pressed panini that starts with two slices of fresh artisanal bread from On the Rise Bakery in Cleveland Heights. Add smoked pork loin from Wilden Farms, smoked provolone from Meadowview Farms Dairy, three thinly sliced Gingerich Family Farm brandywine tomatoes, Schmucker's pepper relish and a touch of extra-virgin olive oil.

Alan Glazen, founder of Glazen Creative Studios, channels the spirit of Dagwood Bumstead, the legendary sandwich-making comic strip character. He puts the sides inside for what he calls his Browns Sunday Sandwich. Materials: Boars Head turkey pastrami, coleslaw from Lake Road Market, cheddar cheese, thin-sliced Don Herman pickles and Stadium Mustard. Assemble all ingredients between two pieces of bread. Sit on the couch. Enjoy.

Mary Gygli of the American Red Cross, Greater Cleveland Chapter, confesses that she experiences "cravings" for roasted vegetables with melted cheese on focaccia bread. And despite his nutritionally correct preference for whole-grain bread, Peter Vertes of Cleveland Botanical Garden admits to a certain "weakness for PB&J on toasted white."

But Ruth Gutschmidt, former manager of La Bodega, thinks outside the grocery bag. "The key to the perfect sandwich," she says, "is having a handsome wealthy man make it for you."

Now, I'll raise my sandwich to that!

Indeed, sandwiches are our comfort food and our fast food, our picnics and our office lunch. They're the stuff of which road trips and midnight snacks are made. There are those we remember and those that bring back memories.

And then, of course, there's the one we're going to eat right now.

Laura Faye Taxel is the author of "Cleveland Ethnic Eats." A new 10th-anniversary edition has recently been released.

Share this story: