I don’t mean to sound fastidious here, but the meatballs in my sub from G, chef Mike Isabella’s daytime sandwich shop on 14th Street NW, look as if they need a shave. When I pry open the mouth of my Italian roll to inspect the little spheres of pork and beef, I notice that each meatball has a scraggly little Amish beard.
But on closer examination, I see that the unkempt whiskers are actually thick strands of pork, which have been braised in tomato sauce with fennel seed and chili flake. The shredded meat has merely affixed itself to the bottom of each ball. Slowly, it dawns on me that Isabella has rewarded meatball fans with a bonus protein: a layer of pork ragu, which piles on the Italian flavors while saturating the sub with extra juices and a secondary blast of pork. The sandwich guarantees a taste of pig in every bite, even if a meatball squirts free from the roll, as those buggers so often do.
If I’m impressed with the sandwich’s engineering, I’m even more taken by the bread. The sesame-seed roll shows no signs of rupture or disintegration despite the fact that it’s soaked in tomato sauce, rendered fat and God knows what other liquidy components. The bread could probably hold back floodwaters and still retain its crustiness and chew.
When I ask Isabella about the bread, the Jersey boy turns uncharacteristically silent. Apparently I and every other writer, breadmaker and sandwich competitor wants to know where the chef gets his Italian rolls. Isabella has become enough of a businessman to know when to clam up. All he’ll offer is that he and chef de cuisine Elliot Drew worked several months with a Maryland bakery to build the perfect sandwich roll. “It’s the kind of bread I grew up eating,” Isabella says.
Over the years, I have flip-flopped worse than Mitt Romney on the issue of bread and its primacy in sandwiches. For years, I bought into the notion that bread was the most important element — until I read Tom Colicchio’s take on the subject in his “’wichcraft” cookbook: “[T]he bread should be gracious enough to take second billing to the inner ingredients.” The sheer logic of that sentence struck me. Of course the fillings deserve our full attention. You don’t call it a focaccia sandwich with prosciutto and mozz.
Ultimately, I’ve determined that neither the bread nor its fillings should clamor for name-above-the-title status. They’re both locked into a mutually beneficial (or destructive) relationship; neither one, no matter how artisanal or hand-crafted, has the ability to overcome the deficiencies of the other. Isabella seems to understand this as well as anyone making sandwiches in the District.
Isabella does not take a one-size-fits-all approach to breads at G, even when different sandwiches rely on the same crusty roll. I discovered this only after placing an order for five sandwiches and reviewing them side by side. The roll for the suckling pig was toasted to a deeper shade of brown than the roll for the spiced baby goat; the sandwich makers clearly decided the succulent pork, spiked with mustard greens and a spicy apple mostarda, could use a roll with a crustier edge, as if the bread were a stand-in for cracklings. The baby goat, by contrast, already had so many contrasting flavors — harissa, pickled red onions, gamey meat, herbs, lemon potatoes — that an initial crackle of hard-baked bread would have been a distraction.
Other breads make an appearance, too. Roasted lamb is slipped into a housemade pita so soft and fresh it feels as if G’s gyro (you’ll never be satisfied with shaved cone meat again) arrives on a royal pillow. The Cubano — thick with shredded pork, prosciutto cotto and chicharrons — is pressed between slices of dense, chewy ciabatta from Lyon Bakery, almost daring your teeth to sneak past it. Once you do reach the interior, you’ll find a meat-heavy interpretation of the Cuban, with pickles too finely sliced and mustard too thinly applied to provide much acidic balance.
The brilliance behind G is that, in a sense, it’s a leftovers factory. Scraps and unused cuts from the spit-roasted animals at Kapnos, Isabella’s Greek-minded restaurant next door, are transformed into some of the most-intensely flavored lunch meats you’ll ever eat. The kitchen will even roast an extra shoulder to add more fattiness to the mix, like with its suckling pig sandwich. Come to think of it, a common theme here is G’s ability to surprise, whether with the strip of pickled eggplant in the Italian hero (a liquidy, more-is-more affair that pushes the bread to its limits) or the braised leg meat tucked into the chicken parm (a tender, tomato-y version that could use more sauce) or the shishito pepper hidden in the roasted cauliflower sandwich (the headline ingredient provides mostly crunch to an array of complementary flavors).
G offers sides and salads, a few of them spectacular (like the roasted cauliflower with capers and raisins). I found it wise to choose your sides carefully. I wouldn’t pair, for instance, the heavy lemon potato hash with the equally dense meatball sub. Not unless you plan to sleep all afternoon. The only skippable section is the one devoted to housemade sodas, which were either too sweet (preserved lemon) or too underwhelming (mandarin and mint).
Oh, one final warning: The sandwich shop morphs into a $40 tasting-menu operation at night. Which is, of course, way out of this diner’s league.
2201 14th St. NW. 202-234-5015. www.gsandwich.com.
Nearest Metro station: U Street, with a 0.3-mile walk to the restaurant.