Standing Room Only: Alpine Food Shop
"This handmade sub is the kind that most neighborhoods would dream of having. It's the anti-Subway."
Alpine Food Shop
7538 W. North Ave., Elmwood Park IL 60707 (map); 708-453-3505; alpinefoodshop.com
The Short Order: Family-run Italian deli with freshly made subs—with giardiniera
Sides: Maybe some potato salad, if you're really hungry
I'll travel far for a good Italian sub. The sandwich, especially in its Chicago form, is a very simple thing. It's filled with cured Italian meats, a little provolone, some oil and vinegar, and as few vegetables as possible. This, I completely understand, sounds a lot like other "Italian Sandwiches," including the Italian hero, which Ed Levine so perfectly chronicled in the New York Times. But the Chicago version is topped with one condiment all other permutations of the sandwich fail to count on: giardiniera.
This blend of vinegary vegetables is a relic of the old country and is usually made with whatever vegetables happen to be around. But in Chicago it has gained a little oil and almost always has some fiery chile in it. It's so good we tend to put it on everything. It's the savior of Italian beefs, it's what can punch up some bland deep-dish pizza, and it's what gives the zing to the Italian sub.
This love of the sandwich explains why my wife and I crossed over the Chicago city limits into Elmwood Park in search of a properly made sub. Within a block of The Alpine Food Shop, we counted no fewer than three other Italian groceries. The shop actually sits directly across the street from the St. Vincent Ferrer Church. I felt like I was on to something.
I was greeted at the door by an enthusiastic "Hey!" followed immediately by "Did you call ahead?" When I replied no, we were given a number. It was a literal sandwich factory. Bread was lined up on the counter, with a huge deli slicer rocking back and forth cutting some salami. Considering the fact that he asked every single person who entered the same thing, I figure that calling ahead might be the polite thing to do.
But it's not like you'll have wait too long. If there is one thing that Alpine has figured out, is the ordering system. While fellow Italian deli Bari was chaotic and slow, I must have been offered assistance by at least five different people. Customers kept pouring in and out while I was there, and yet it always seemed like there were more people behind the counter than in front of it.
It's all for their eponymous sandwich, the Alpine, which consists of ham, salami, capocollo, and provolone. It is topped with the standards of thinly sliced lettuce, tomato, oil and vinegar. Giardiniera is extra, and as you can probably tell, it's one I always spring for. It adds just a bit of heat and crunch.
The glory of the Alpine is its simplicity. Yes, there are three kinds of meats, but they aren't piled up so high you'd have to unhinge your jaw to taste them all. The provolone comes in one manageable layer, so you'll get that the slightly milky and salty bite, but it will act as an accent and not the main show. You can polish off a whole sub and still feel reasonably good about yourself.
Even the veggie sandwich, usually the black hole of sandwich culture, is done right. Most veggie sandwiches are horrible facsimiles of the real thing, where copious amounts of cheese and bland lettuce and tomatoes are swapped for the meat. But this one houses roasted red peppers and portobellos, which are thinly sliced and topped with a provolone. Spiked with some spicy giardiniera, it's a worthy alternative if not exactly worth the drive.
Alpine uses rolls from Gonnella, and they are a little softer than the firm, chewy rolls served at places like Bari. That means that the Alpine sub doesn't quite reach the perfection of the one I've had at Bari. But this feels like nitpicking. This handmade sub is the kind that most neighborhoods would dream of having. It's the anti-Subway. Next time, just call ahead.