This is a pilgrimage of sorts. It’s the longest but most rewarding walk I’ll take this week, a week in which I have a different classic sandwich every day. Today is Saturday ― Defonte’s Day ― so I’m willing to put in the extra work.
You see, Defonte’s offers the finest Italian hero in the five boroughs of New York, full-stop. If anyone tells you it’s Alidoro, or some other hip-ass spot in SoHo, they’ve never left Manhattan and aren’t to be trusted. You have to schlep south to Red Hook for anything like the Nicky Special: ham, capicola, salami, provolone, fried eggplant, hot salad, mushrooms, lettuce, tomato, oil and vinegar, all on a mammoth of chewy, seeded, beautiful gluten.
And schlep I did, trudging through Cobble Hill, over the foot bridge on the BQE and into Red Hook’s quiet, industrial embrace. And by this time, I am fucking jonesing for a sando ― I haven’t eaten all day, I am irritable, none of my friends had the guts to make this trip with me, why am I even working on a weekend, what is the meaning of life, I should have just eaten a ham egg n’ cheese and gone back to bed.
Oh yeah, I also quit smoking after 12 years. On any normal walk, I’d be having a few cigarettes, one or two of the 20 I’d smoke each day. Smoking is a five-minute process that takes my mind off my own thoughts, and not smoking is a 1,435-minute process that consumes just about every moment that I’m not puffing away. I smoke a cig, I feel relaxed and sated, and I immediately begin plotting my course toward the next fix.
But it’s been three weeks since I had a hit of my sweet, sweet nicotine, and I’ve decided to replace that rush of endorphins with sandwiches.
Quitting is an ongoing battle with your brain, which enjoys Things That Are Good and acts like a large baby when said Things are in sight but out of reach. My chosen route to a smoke-free lifestyle ― which doesn’t allow for any nicotine, patches and Juuls be damned ― stacks the odds heavily in the Big Baby’s favor. So I’ve decided to feed that baby as many delicious sandwiches as possible, flooding my pleasure receptors while I suffer through withdrawal. And since smoking dulls your senses of taste and smell, I figure I can win this fight by assaulting my newly formed taste buds with buttery fats, chewy glutens, salt and acid.
It’s probably not the best route to quitting, and I’m leaning on a very strong prescription drug that helps with cravings, but hey, give me a break. I just quit smoking, you jerk.
MONDAY: Just a Plain Ol’ Turkey Sandwich, OK?
I could regale you with a self-serving monologue about how the turkey sandwich is the true classic, and that a weeklong journalistic undertaking such as this calls for an apéritif on Day One so that my readers ― and my stomach ― get a gamut of flavor profiles and a Tour de Hoagy of New York City. But you know what? I was busy on Monday, and there was a free turkey sandwich from Chipolo at the office.
It was fine. Smoked turkey and smoked mozzarella were made for one another, and Chipolo’s hot spread is a nice touch. Purists would tell you that their take on Sfilatino sourdough isn’t nearly crusty enough on the outside, and they’d be correct.
I didn’t have bad cravings today, so it’s good that I saved the best sandwiches for the rest of the week, because…
TUESDAY: A DARK DAY, But Also PARM DAY
This was the day that the dark cloud of addiction descended over my desk here at HuffPost. I had this hanging feeling like there was something missing, but because of the god-awful quit-smoking drug that I’m on, my brain couldn’t identify exactly what would fill that hole. Suddenly the Big Baby was extremely upset, and didn’t know why.
I was cranky. I was introverted. I did not pace the office harassing my colleagues, which is out of character for me. I wondered why I chose to work in journalism, why I chose to live in New York, why I was vertical as opposed to horizontal. On any normal day, I don’t suffer from depression, and for that I consider myself lucky. But Tuesday was not a normal day.
Worse, HuffPost’s senior food editor forced me to try this abomination:
That’s a mayo and peanut butter sandwich. Apparently it’s a thing in the South, and you can read more about it here. I don’t recommend it, mainly because it’s a sandwich of mayo and peanut butter. It didn’t help brighten my day.
But eventually, there was a break in the clouds. After I sulked to myself for half a shift (hey, I did work too, if my editor is reading this) I got to researching some natural remedies for the Tuesday Trembles. I Googled, “cure for journalist having a sad,” and lo, the internet gave me a sign.
It was a chicken parm sandwich.
I fed the Big Baby that night. I fed it a lot. New York is blessed with some very good meatball parm and chicken parm joints, but I was intrigued by Best Pizza in Williamsburg, hailed by some food blog nobody’s ever heard of for mixing anchovies into its sauce. That’s a bold flavor combo I can get behind.
So I ordered both the meatball and chicken parmesan sandwiches, because I can. The chefs at Best Pizza revealed that the unknown food blog was just plain wrong ― anchovies are featured only on some of Best Pizza’s slices. But it changed nothing. The parms were delicious: The sauce was rich and balanced, the toppings and textures were plentiful, the chicken was perfectly crisp and fried, and the balls were flavorful. Even better, the bread was fresh and chewy, but strong enough to hold up a mountain of sauce and meat.
Moral of the story: If you’re going to walk through hell, get a chicken parm sandwich on your way out.
WEDNESDAY: Oh Hell Yeah, It’s Lox Bagel Day
If the chicken parm is a sandwich for eating your sadness, the lox is a sandwich for treating yourself. If you see a New Yorker on the corner holding the works ― lox salmon, tomato, onion and capers on an everything bagel with cream cheese ― you know they’ve been a Very Good Boy or Girl and things are looking up for them.
Did you get a raise? Lox bagel for breakfast. Oh, your first date went well? LOX BAGEL, BABY. You know what, if you’re reading this, get a lox bagel like the one above from Bagel Bob’s (at any given bagel shop, it’ll usually be called “the supreme” or “the classic” or “the loxplosion,” and costs between $ 10 and $ 13). You’ve earned it, champ.
THURSDAY: The Sandwich That Tested My Resolve
This is a banh mi from Num Pang Kitchen, a Southeast Asian shop founded by a very good chef who is very much not Southeast Asian. That’s fine, and the sandwich is fine. The thing is, I wanted to introduce you to Hanco’s banh mi, found on Smith Street in Brooklyn ― it’s the best banh mi in the city, in my very important opinion.
The Hanco’s sandwich is a delicious take on the Vietnamese classic: pate, vietnamese ham and ground roasted pork are bathed in butter, mayo, cucumber, carrots and daikon radish to form what I believe to be The Perfect Everyday Sando.
The Num Pang version is fine ― the duroc pork is a little dry, it’s overly carroted and why is the bun toasted? ― but more importantly, it was near the office and I didn’t have an extra subway stop in the gas tank on Thursday. But hey, I didn’t smoke! The point is, try Hanco’s.
FRIDAY: Smoke Meats, Not Cigs
I have become one of Pavlov’s dogs. Where those good boys salivated after hearing a bell, I eat a sandwich after seeing or smelling a cigarette. Needless to say, I’ve been eating a lot of sandwiches, and they keep getting BIGGER and BOLDER each day.
So on Friday, when I walked through the corridor of smoke that New Yorkers have to walk through on their way to work every day (sorry about that!), I decided to go bigger than ever. The 2nd Ave. Deli pastrami sandwich may look small compared to its bigger cousin at Katz’s, but it’s so salty and fatty and buttery that it’ll fill you up, physically and emotionally, for days.
You can’t get much better than pastrami between two thin slices of rye. Maybe a tiny dollop of mustard and a pickle on the side. Nothing else. Delicious.
SATURDAY: With A Little Help From Defonte’s
I didn’t get the Nicky Special, as described above. My favorite is the Italian Stallion: fresh prosciutto and mozzarella, with roasted red peppers and that signature slice of salty eggplant heaven underneath. This really was my summit of Sandwich Mountain.
I also cleared a hurdle on Saturday night, when I refused a cigarette while out at karaoke in Brooklyn. I imbibed for sure; I think everyone did. Some news happened on Saturday that had implications beyond Sandwich Week.
But I didn’t smoke, and my rendition of the Joe Cocker “With A Little Help From My Friends” cover brought the damn house down. WoooOooO!
SUNDAY: Leave Me Alone
Flew a little too close to the sun last night, you guys. I stayed in bed and skipped a sandwich day. I don’t have to live by your rules, or my own, for that matter.
MONDAY: Ham Egg & Cheese
It’s a ham egg n’ cheese with hot sauce, what else do you want? Bacon? Whatever. This is as classic as breakfast sandwiches get.
This sandwich is a celebration of waking up in the morning, a sign that you made it through the previous day. And on this Monday, it tastes better than it used to. That blend of melty American cheese, salty ham and hot sauce hits my taste buds a little harder than it used to, and for that I am grateful.
Smoking cessation is not great, and since I’m a nicotine addict, there’s never really an “end” to the process. But every day, it gets a little easier, and I feel like the darkest days are behind me.
I’ve begun to replace my nicotine cravings with sandwiches ― a pack of smokes for a snack pack. And a half-pack of this new habit quite often hits the spot!