Aside from my late father’s liverwurst-and-mustard-on-white that, incredibly and revoltingly, he would often dunk in hot tea, I have encountered few sandwiches that I have been unwilling to eat and enjoy.
Sandwiches are my favorite food “thing.”
Having grown up in Cumberland County, working for many years in Cape May County, and now living in Atlantic County for the past 32 years, I have found some great sandwiches in this oft-overlooked corner of the state: sandwiches so outstanding that they deserve recognition and a strong recommendation that you try them for yourself.
Over the next several weeks, I will be writing about my favorite sandwiches from each of these counties and telling you exactly what makes them so special. Maybe it is an unusual ingredient, perhaps a unique sauce, or it is possible that it is simply a traditional sandwich done exceptionally well. Whatever it is that sets these sandwiches apart from all others, you will know it.
But I needed to set three ground rules for myself.
Because this list is all about one-of-a-kind sandwiches, my first rule was that there would be no sandwiches from chain outlets. That excluded a number of great sub shops in this area, such as Sack O’Subs, which has seven outlets in Cape May and Atlantic Counties, including one in Absecon that I patronize quite often. Still, it seemed to me that if you could get an equally great sandwich at any one of a number of locations, then that sandwich, by definition, is not unique.
My second rule was a bit more challenging: I had to determine what actually constituted a sandwich. By most standards, a sandwich is two or more pieces of bread with filling inside. But as I turned this over in my mind, I recognized a critical inconsistency when trying to apply this simplistic definition to a number of food items.
Were two pieces of bread really needed for something to be considered a sandwich? If so, no sub (or hoagie, or whatever you like to call them) or wrap would ever fit the definition, which seems preposterous to me. So, I amended my personal definition to include not only bread, but also a wrap and a roll split in two. That seemed to cover all my bases.
Until I considered the hot dog, which, of course, sits inside a split roll. But for nebulous reasons that I admittedly cannot clearly define nor coherently defend, a hot dog, to me, is not a sandwich: It is sandwich-like, but it falls short. Others are free to disagree and, perhaps, we can have that debate at another time.
For my purposes in preparing this list, I decided that the definition-defying hot dog would be excluded from by deliberations. Interestingly, though, if I decided that I would include hot dogs, then one entry on my forthcoming lists would be honored twice (I’ll tell you about it when the time comes). Aside from that, my final decision was that I would consider a sandwich to be any combination of meat, cheese and/or vegetables between at least two pieces of bread, inside of a roll, or in a wrap.
Readers should be thankful that I did not adopt my wife’s arbitrary and rigid sandwich standards, which, by her definition, would have excluded not only hot dogs, but also burgers, cheesesteaks, and all manner of subs/hoagies. So sure that her view as to what constitutes a sandwich is the only correct option that the series of counterpoints I raised to her argument resulted in a terse, “We need to stop this conversation or you’ll ruin my day.” After 28 years of marriage, I know when to quit (usually). This was such an occasion.
The final rule—one that I knew better than to discuss with my wife—was that the sandwich had to be hand-held: There would be no sloppy, open-face, knife-and-fork-required offerings on this list.
With the rules and definition set, I look forward to sharing with you my favorite Atlantic County sandwiches.
Number 3: The Jezebel
300 Oriental Avenue
Atlantic City, NJ 08401
Tony Boloney’s menu is known for some unique flavor combinations.
There’s the Jewish Cowboy pizza (eight-hour smoked brisket, Passover sauce, babushka beet horseradish, smoked mozzarella and parsley). Among the extensive offering of French fries, there’s the Aloo—sesame seeds, coconut curry tikka masala, vegan or fresh mozzarella, fresh jalapeños, cilantro, and green chutney. Looking for something lighter? Maybe try the Sh#tfaced Wings made with honey stout barbecue sauce and crushed Fritos.
With offerings as wild as these—and many more—it is not surprising that you will find here one of the most outrageous and delicious sandwiches Atlantic County has to offer.
Readers, I introduce you to The Jezebel.
Bearing the name of the notorious biblical queen, Tony Boloney’s Jezebel (pictured at top) is every bit as colorful and alluring as its namesake.
The Jezebel is an exceptional combination of spicy Nashville boneless fried chicken, sour dill pickles, smoked mozzarella and purple slaw topped with dill aioli (a mayonnaise-like sauce). Although you can choose from among a seeded roll, an Atlantic City sub roll, a wrap, or fries as your vessel for this delectable and devious monstrosity, I recommend opting for the seeded roll, as the seeds add a pleasant texture that nicely complements the other ingredients.
At about a foot long, this sandwich is a lot of food, but it is not so much as to be a frustrating, sloppy mess to eat. The roll is nicely filled and is an excellent balance of sweet and spicy ingredients: You will taste everything and no single component of the sandwich will upstage another.
If you find it impossible to finish the entire Jezebel in one sitting, you should know that you are not alone. But do not throw away what is left. Just wrap it in plastic, put it in the refrigerator, and enjoy it later. It holds very well and is just as tasty cold as it is hot.
Number 2: Meatball Parmigiana
Carluccio’s Coal-Fired Pizza
1200 New Road
Northfield, NJ 08225
Admittedly, there is not much to a meatball sub: Just meatballs, sauce, cheese, and bread.
But this thin list of ingredients is what makes this sandwich so deceptively difficult to pull off. With no room to hide a substandard element, it is critical that each component be able to stand on its own.
A slightly dry meatball, an uninspiring sauce, a cellulose-tasting cheese, or bread with little texture—any one of these is enough to doom a meatball sub and sadden the person who ordered it. Frankly, few places can get it right.
Carluccio’s, however, gets it right. Every time.
A small but bright and comfortable restaurant located at the intersection of New and Tilton Roads in Northfield, Carluccio’s has been earning devoted diners by offering authentic Italian dishes—including pizzas cooked at 1000 degrees—since opening in 2012.
While it’s well known locally, Carluccio’s gained national attention when the popular Food Network show Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives featured the spot on a 2014 episode. Typically, that kind of glitz turns me off to a place, but in this case, the meatball parmigiana sub outshines the brightest lights the culinary entertainment industry has to offer.
Here’s the breakdown on what makes Carluccio’s meatball parm the very best you will find in Atlantic County:
The meatballs are large, tender, moist, and flavorful. The seasoning is perfect enough to let you know that this is neither a hamburger nor meatloaf. This is a real, Nonna-style Italian meatball.
The sauce is so good that Carluccio’s gives you a double portion: a generous blanket atop the meatballs and a cup on the side for dipping—or drinking. No one could blame you if you did: It is really that good. Slightly sweet and just a touch more pink than red, the sauce serves to elevate the meatballs, not drown them.
The melted mozzarella cheese is appropriately stringy without being annoying, and there is just enough on the sandwich to tie the meatballs, sauce, and bread together.
Speaking of the bread, this is the key ingredient that takes this sandwich from great to extraordinary. While you can choose the bread for your meatball parm—options include semolina, multigrain, and flour tortilla—I beg you to opt for the Atlantic City roll. The reason is scientific.
For those not familiar with an Atlantic City roll, it is characterized by a crisp exterior and a soft, somewhat dense interior. What makes this roll so special and so unique to this part of South Jersey is the water with which it is made.
The local water is from the Kirkwood-Cohansey Aquifer, an underground lake of sorts, tapped in the 1890s by Dr. Jonathan Pitney as a water source for Atlantic City. It covers nearly 3,000 square miles and holds almost 18 trillion gallons (enough to put the entirety of New Jersey under 10 feet of water). Though it may be hard to believe, many regard this water as the cleanest and purest water in the world.
This water is also slightly more acidic than water found elsewhere. (The average water acidity nationwide is 7.8 while locally it is 7.2: The lower the number, the more acidic.) While this may not seem like a large difference, it is significant enough to affect the taste and texture of bread. The more acid in the water makes for softer water, and soft water benefits two industries: Laundries and bakeries making hard-crusted bread. Soft water absorbs more flour so the few area bakeries that make Atlantic City rolls add more of it, which makes the bread unique.
The crispness of the bread—made even crispier by a stint in the 1000-degree pizza oven—combined with the meatballs, sauce, and cheese, make this a sandwich worth driving for.
And if you enjoy some spice in your sandwich, order yours with hot peppers.
Number 1: The Godfather
417 12th Street
Hammonton, NJ 08037
You cannot swing a salami in New Jersey without hitting a sandwich joint that makes a good Italian sub—even a very good one, for that matter.
Considerably harder, however, is finding the best, but I have done that work for you.
Readers, you can search from one end of the Turnpike to the other, and you can scour every deli and sub shop between Cape May and High Point, from the Atlantic to the Delaware, and you will find the state’s most delicious Italian sub at only one small place.
Bagliani’s Market in Hammonton
Located in western Atlantic County, the largely agricultural town of Hammonton has a long, deep Italian heritage. So prevalent is Italian culture in the town that Hammonton has the distinction of being the home to the annual Our Lady of Mount Carmel Festival. At 146 years old, the festival is the nation’s longest-running special event dedicated to the celebration of the Italian community and culture.
So it only seems to make sense that the state’s best sandwich—and an Italian one at that—would be found here.
The Godfather is an Italian sub, no doubt, but it is not just some salami and provolone slapped inside a roll. The Godfather, beyond being a sandwich, is an experience, and one that starts well before you take your first bite.
It begins when you enter Bagliani’s and your nose and eyes are treated to the heady, intoxicating aromas and sights of a true Italian market: cured meats, sweet onions, vinegars, breads, oregano and basil, fresh produce, homemade salads and pastas, grocery items, and a large wall of nothing but imported cheeses all combine to create an irresistible invitation to the deli section in the back end of this small market.
After ordering your Godfather (you might consider calling ahead as the place can get quite busy, especially on weekends), enjoy your wait time for your sandwich (and the fast-moving line you will likely stand in to pay for it) by listening to some of the customer chatter: old friends seeing each other again in the market, farmers talking about how crops are doing this year, and the plans of beachgoers who stopped in to pick up sandwiches for their ride to the shore. This is a small-town food spot at its absolute finest.
The Godfather is what other Italian subs can only aspire to be. You get real Italian ingredients—prosciutto, soppressata, dry-cured capicola, and sharp provolone. The heart of the sandwich is topped with lettuce, tomato, and onions and piled onto a crusty, seeded Italian roll, which comes from Formica’s Bakery, in Atlantic City.
This alone would be enough to make this a great sandwich, but Bagliani’s puts the Godfather over the top with the addition of marinated eggplant. Yes, it’s an uncommon ingredient for a sub, to be sure, but one that plays a critical role in delivering the ultimate sandwich-eating experience. Some sandwich shops might add a splash of red wine vinegar to provide an extra punch of flavor. Bagliani’s has opted instead to use its chopped, marinated eggplant to deliver a subtle but noticeable piquant note that you simply won’t taste in any other Italian sub.
The first bite into the Godfather—and every bite after that—is truly an espolsione of deep, rich, and memorable tastes and textures. You start with the initial crunch of the roll, then move to the slightly spicy and toothsome meats. Then you hit the unmistakable sharpness of the generous portion of aged provolone, all cooled by fresh lettuce, tomatoes, and onions, and finished by the vinegary bite of the marinated eggplant.
The Godfather comes in three sizes: Bambino (about 6 inches: $7), half (about 12 inches: $11), and whole (about 18 inches: $21). Consider yourself warned: Whatever size you choose, it will not be enough.