Each ingredient serves a specific task. The salami provides a peppery bite, the rich mortadella mellows it out, while the capicola and ham bring the salt. Provolone is a tangy counterpart to the oily dressing, while the lettuce, tomato and onion add a bit of crisp freshness.
You can order the Italian American specialty across Washington, so we sampled seven subs and took thorough notes — on olive-oil-soaked paper — to crown one sandwich supreme. The following sandwiches were judged on appearance, flavor, structure and bread quality.
Our findings — graded on a scale of 20 — are ranked below, from least to most enjoyable.
Il Padrino at Radici
This hearty sub, from a charming Italian market on Capitol Hill, was one of the fanciest-looking of the bunch. But that fact didn’t win it any points.
Average score: 9.75
Ingredients: Genoa salami, sopressata, pepperoni, capicola, roasted red peppers, Italian seasoning and romaine lettuce on a French baguette.
Our tasters said: “My jaw actually cracked when I bit into this.” “Waaay too chewy. Kinda stale? A little overbaked?” “Meat has good flavor, but there’s not enough of it, and the cheese and lettuce are merely afterthoughts.” “A sandwich that will hold up on a road trip.” “Lots of meat, but that doesn't equal lots of flavor. Needs more vegetables.”
$9. 303 Seventh St. SE. 202-758-0086. radici-market.com.
Roma at the Italian Store
Though this was a blind taste test, one of our testers knew immediately which local institution this sandwich was from based on the distinct hot peppers.
Average score: 9.88
Ingredients: Dry-cured prosciutto, mortadella, Genoa salami, provolone cheese, shredded lettuce, tomato, onion and hot peppers on a soft roll.
Our tasters said: “The soft roll has issues when transported.” “Looks a little mushy and flat.” “The bread just turns to paste.” “A nice balance of spicy and sweet, thanks to the peppers and prosciutto.” “A classic sub, albeit one run over with a steam roller.” “Well balanced, with a good blend of biting hot peppers and a variety of meats.”
$7.99. 5837 Washington Blvd., Arlington; 3123 Lee Hwy., Arlington. italianstore.com.
Italian Cold Cut at Vace Italian Deli
Cured meats hanging from the ceiling. The smell of marinara sauce simmering. Bags of fresh pasta in the fridge. Everything about this place screams authentic Italian. But how does its sub measure up?
Average score: 10.75
Ingredients: Genoa salami, ham, mortadella, mozzarella cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion on a hard Italian sub roll.
Our tasters said: “This is packed to the gills.” “Too peppery, which overwhelms the palate.” “Weirdly exotic, thanks to a thick layer of vegetables in the middle of the sub.” “Bland onions you can’t detect.” “The bread is tough, overly chewy and dense. Was still chewing bread after swallowing everything else.”
$6. 3315 Connecticut Ave. NW; 4705 Miller Ave., Bethesda. vaceitaliandeli.com.
Classic Italian sub at A. Litteri
This long-standing deli is beloved for its (fairly priced) wine selection. Lines at the deli can take a while, but the results are usually worth it.
Average score: 12.25
Ingredients: Capicola, Genoa salami, mortadella, prosciuttini, provolone, lettuce, tomato, onion, hot peppers and Italian dressing on a nine-inch hard roll.
Our tasters said: “This just looks like a classic Italian deli sandwich.” “Good spice to the salami, and the tomatoes add brightness that some of the others lack.” “I don’t trust any Italian sub whose lettuce isn’t shredded.” “Nice and crusty but not too hard.” “Mostly peppers and heat. Can't really taste much else — well, salt. I need water. Note to whomever made this: A sub is not a vehicle for hot peppers.”
$6.50. 517-519 Morse St. NE. 202-544-0183. alitteri.com.
Bub’s Italian hoagie at Bub and Pop’s
If we were judging this sub on looks alone, it would be the front-runner. But eating it proved to be a bit sloppy, and the dressings made it soggy.
Average score: 14.25
Ingredients: Genoa salami, prosciutto, capicola, pepperoni, provolone, arugula, Roma tomatoes, a relish of hot peppers, sweet peppers, pickle, onion, mayonnaise, vinaigrette, and pecorino Romano on a roll.
Our tasters said: “Bright and festive with thick tomato slices, greens and a relish.” “I didn’t know subs could be this beautiful.” “Italian sub in a ballgown.” “The sloppiest sandwich of the bunch, but I like them a little messy.” “The peppery meat and flavorful vegetables are higher quality than others — these do not taste like they fell off the cold cut truck.” “Chowing down on a sub should be a pleasant tactile experience. This was like eating a soft, wet sloppy joe.”
Half $10, whole $18. 1815 M St. NW. 202-457-1111. bubandpops.com.
Italian Combo at Capo Italian Deli
Capo may be new, but it earns major cred for its well constructed fillings and quality meats.
Average score: 14.25
Ingredients: Salami, hot cooked capicola, provolone, shredded lettuce, tomatoes and onion on seeded crispy Italian bread.
Our tasters said: “The sesame seed roll is an eye-catcher.” “Are those red onions? Not traditional, but I like.” “It looked like a science class display of the Earth's core.” “The toasted sesame seeds have taken over.” “Bland. Maybe because the fillings are so tightly concentrated in one part of the bread?”
$11.95. 715 Florida Ave. NW. 202-827-8012. capodc.com.
“G” Man at Mangialardo’s
Signs you’re at a legit deli: A truckload of firefighters hop out to grab their sandwiches, which is exactly what happened when we visited.
Average score: 16.38
Ingredients: Ham, salami, mortadella, pepperoni, fontina cheese, provolone cheese, oregano on a hard roll.
Our tasters said: “This has everything you could want in a sub.” “Stands tall and proud.” “A peppery, bold flavor, the peppers add tang and cheese and mayo cool it all down for a perfect balance.” “The innards slide out when you bite into it.” “Now this is what a sub should look like.” “Variety of salami and spicy meats, with hot peppers and giardiniera bringing the heat. Not for the faint of heart.”
$8.50. 1317 Pennsylvania Ave. SE. 202-543-6212. mangialardos.com.