In the pantheon of New York City cuisine, the Italian sub holds its own alcove of honor alongside others like the hot dog, the slice and the bagel. East Williamsburg’s Graham Avenue Meats has become an icon of the old school, serving up some of the city’s finest iterations of the classic sandwich. We stopped by to talk to proprietor Jerry Virtuoso.
OK Jerry, let’s talk sandwiches. What should we have?
I think we should do the Godfather. It’s one of our most popular sandwiches. It’s a pretty classic old school Italian sub. It’s got our homemade roasted peppers, two Italian meats – it’s got mortadella and a choice of either spicy or sweet gabagool or sopressata – two Italian cheeses – Parmigiano Reggiano and provolone, some spicy or sweet vinegar peppers, red onion, lettuce and arugula, fresh basil, and olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and that’s all on a nice semolina roll.
When I make this thing, I start with the roasted peppers. We make them here. We stuff the peppers with all the Italian herbs like oregano, basil, parsley, garlic, black pepper, and some crushed red pepper for a little heat. Everything gets marinated in oil to let the flavors all get together, and then everything gets roasted on the fire. So with all those herbs, it’s got a really zesty flavor. And that little bit of hot pepper kind of brings out the Italianness in it, you know?
Straight into that I go with the balsamic vinegar, which has that really rich, deep, sweet flavor, and the extra virgin olive oil, which has the light, fresh flavor. So the two together make a good flavor. You know – it’s classic.
Then comes the Parmigiano cheese. It’s an aged Parmigiano, so it’s got a pretty sharp flavor. So there’s already a ton of flavor in there already. You could have a sandwich with just that because of all the taste you have in there.
Next, you gotta make some choices. You gotta pick whether you want spicy or sweet gabagool, or spicy or sweet sopressata. All of those are imported from Italy.
Gabagool is what we call capicola here in New York. It’s made with whole cuts of meat from the shoulder or the neck of the pig. They don’t grind the meat for capicola. It’s kind of like prosciutto that way. Proscuitto is made from whole cuts of a ham. It’s not ground. Capicola’s made from the shoulder or neck. It’s brined in salt water to draw out the juices, then seasoned with wine, herbs and spices like paprika and red pepper, then rolled and stuffed into some sausage netting, and hung to cure for a couple of months. So it’s a raw, cured meat. We have a spicy version and a sweet one.
Sopressata is a sausage. It’s also made with pork, but they grind the meat instead of using a whole cut like they do with the capicola. It’s a coarse grind that’s seasoned and then cured. So it’s a raw, cured meat like the capicola, but it’s roughly ground, seasoned and aged. It’s like a pepperoni kind of thing. That comes spicy or sweet too.
So you pick one of those. Then I’m gonna go in with the provolone. The provolone we use is a mild provolone. If you got a spicy sandwich, the provolone is going to bring down the heat a little bit, and the more intense flavors of the gabagool or sopressata and the Parmigiano. It’s gonna keep everything in a nice neutral zone so you can really enjoy everything. If you get a spicy sandwich, it’s gonna have some zing, but the roasted peppers, the provolone, they’re going to keep it in check.
Then with the vinegar peppers. They’re just raw peppers they get pickled in vinegar. I’ll take a sweet vinegar pepper or spicy one, depending on how you want to go with it. I’m just gonna chop that up into nice little pieces and put it on top of the provolone. Vinegar peppers and provolone? They just go together.
Then comes the mortadella. The mortadella is another pork sausage. It’s not spicy at all. It’s not sweet either. It has its own old fashioned taste. It’s originally from Bologna in Italy, and it’s basically the original Italian version of baloney. It’s fatty pork meat, ground all the way into a kind of paste that’s seasoned with stuff like coriander and wine and whole pistachios. Then they stuff it into a casing and cook it.
The capicola and the sopressata are raw and cured, but the mortadella is cooked. It’s got a milder, creamier flavor than those. It’s pretty delicious, and it definitely works with the provolone to balance out the stronger flavors of the cured meats and the Parmigiano.
Then we have some red onions. We let the onions sit a little bit after we cut them to let the sweetness in the onion really come out. When you let them sit a little, they start tasting like a Jolly Rancher. [laughter.] I know, it sounds crazy, but it’s true!
Then tomatoes. Gotta have tomatoes. Then for the lettuce, we use a mix of arugula and other greens. The arugula alone is pretty peppery. Like with everything else in the sandwich, we’re trying to keep everything in balance. We think the arugula alone is a little too strong. By mixing it with some other lettuce you get the flavor of the arugula, but keep it in the middle so it’s not too strong.
Then to finish it, a little fresh basil and a little more olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and that’s it. We’re done.
What about the bread?
The bread, we get it from Napoli Bakery right over here on Metropolitan. We use their semolina bread with sesame seeds. The semolina bread has a little bit of a sweeter flavor than the regular Italian bread. It helps bring out more of the flavors in the sandwich. It wraps it all together really nice. It’s a good sandwich.
What about the shop? What’s the story here?
The shop itself has been here since 1985. My father started it. He’s from Naples. It’s an Italian butcher shop. Back in the day, we did a lot more meat, and a lot fewer sandwiches. Today, we do a lot more sandwiches than we used to, and a little less meat.
That’s because the neighborhood has changed. It used to be all old school Italian people around here, with extended families – grandparents, parents, kids. It was a different feeling. Everybody knew everybody. Everybody always asked, “Oh hey, how’s your mom, your dad, your grandpa?”
If you’ve got a family at home, you’re probably not gonna bring a sandwich home for dinner. You’re probably gonna get a porterhouse or a ribeye or something like that, go home, and have a nice family dinner.
What’s changed is now you have a lot more younger people around here, and they don’t really settle down and stay like they used to. You have a lot of younger people coming in from another state or someplace, trying to do something with their life, and have a little fun too. Now, when they’re ready to settle down, they usually go someplace else. So they’re young and they don’t have a family to sit down and eat with, so they eat sandwiches.
So yeah, it’s changed. It went from meat to sandwiches, from Italian families to younger people from all over. I love it all. How it used to be was great, and how it is now is great. All kinds of people come through that door. I’ve met actors, musicians, professional snowboarders. It’s ridiculous. And that comes with the new school of people. The old school was all about work, work, work, family, family, family. The new school is a little different. They want to have fun. They work too, but they want to have fun. Me? I love everything about it.
You can’t get something better than what we got here. You make friends, you learn things about people. You talk to people. You get to know them. You never really know what the next day will bring, or who’s gonna come through the door. For all I know Sylvester Stallone could come in here tomorrow. I wouldn’t know what to do. I guess I’d make him a sandwich. [laughter.]
Yeah, people like the sandwiches. On the menu, we don’t list the ingredients. We don’t say what’s in them. When people come in, they say, “Oh, how am I supposed to know what’s on the sandwiches?” I say, “Well, you have four guys right here behind the counter who can tell you everything you want to know about the sandwiches.”
We like to talk to people here. It’s more fun for us that way than if we were just taking orders and making sandwiches. When people have to talk to you about the sandwich, it creates a relationship between the customer and the counter man. By talking about the sandwiches, we can get to know each other a little bit. We can learn about what you like and what you don’t like, so we can make sure you get exactly what you want every time you come in. It’s just a nice experience getting to know people.
What about you? How did you end up behind the counter?
I started working here with my dad when I was thirteen years old. So I’ve been doing this for about seven years. I started out just cleaning stuff. Just learning, taking it in. But not asking questions. With the old school Italians, if you want to learn something, one of the big rules is, “Don’t ask questions. Just watch and learn, and if you have to ask a question, wait until we’re done and there’s nobody here.”
So that’s what I did. I remember making my first sandwich here. It was a very big deal, my dad letting me make a sandwich for the first time. I was very, very nervous. I was terrified, actually. He was standing there right next to me, like a hawk, watching me to make sure I didn’t do anything wrong. [laughter.] You felt his eyes, trust me. He taught me a lot.
This year, the store got passed down to me. Now I have it. I’m just trying to do more, to make more sandwiches, different sandwiches, to keep helping people out, talking to people, and just doing the best I can with what I know how to do. That’s pretty much my life now.
You know, I really love this place. I’ve worked with a lot of different people, a lot of different characters. From that side of the counter, you might think, “A deli man is just a deli man,” but I’ll tell you, there’s a lot of personalities in this world. A lot of characters. On both sides of the counter.
Graham Avenue Meats is located at 445 Graham Ave, between Frost & Richardson, in East Williamsburg.
Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager. All rights reserved.