Super Sandwiches from WiseGuy Italian Street Food


It’s been several years that I’ve passed by the stand that sells Italian sandwiches at the Issaquah Farmers Market. I’ve tried most of the other food vendors’ fare, and none of them has left a lasting impression. That was about to change. WiseGuy Italian Street Food serves two hot hero sandwiches: sausage and pepper and Italian meatball. There are big pans of each filling cooking over stoves that attract passersby. Though WiseGuy at the market operates under a canopy, it normally is a food truck operation that roams the east side of Lake Washington.

Sausage and pepper filling

Sausage and pepper filling

Meatballs

Meatballs

How better to sandwich both fillings than using Le Panier‘s baguette, a wonderfully light bread with a thin, crackly crust. It could almost be suitable for banh mi. (Le Panier’s pastries and sandwiches, served at Pike Place Market, are fantastic in their own right.) Each sandwich uses one-third of a loaf.

The foundations of the best Italian meatball sandwiches are flavorful, succulent meatballs, a great marinara and the right bread, neither too soft nor thickly crusty. WiseGuy delivers on all counts. The bread is sliced in half horizontally like a book, packed with humongous meatballs and sauced. The marinara is terrific with no dominating herbal notes. Instead of using mozzarella, grated provolone is sprinkled along the cut length. Not a bad thing, just different. The only problem, if I can call it that, is the colossal size of the meatballs which are difficult to sink your teeth into; the sauce acts like lubricant that slides the meat down the bread. Only taking a bigger than normal bite or attacking the sandwich from above makes any progress. Unhinging your jaws works, too. Apart from that, what a great sandwich, as good as we’ve had in a long time. (☆☆☆☆)

Meatball sandwich with marinara

Meatball sandwich with marinara

The most popular sandwich seems to be the sausage and pepper hero. The way the sandwich is constructed is interesting. A plastic rod nearly as wide in diameter as the bread is pushed into the cut end but not all the way through, forming a deep pocket into which is stuffed the filling. The technique may seem gimmicky but it is quick and an inspired way to keep the stuffing contained. The sausage flavor is excellent, the red bells perfectly cooked and the filling spicy from dried red pepper flakes. The sandwich is the ideal combination of bread and savory, zesty and spicy Italian flavors. (☆☆☆☆)

Sausage and pepper hero

Sausage and pepper hero

We enjoyed these last week, enough so that we made it a point to go back to the market today and try some variations.

An alternative to the sausage hero is a combination of sausages and meatball. The same hollowed-out baguette is mostly filled with the sausages and peppers. The last couple of inches is plugged with a single giant meatball. I’ll call it The Corker because it doesn’t appear on WiseGuy’s menu. Many customers order it this way. Whether in the future I have The Corker or not will depend on my mood that day. (☆☆☆☆)

To address the slipping meatball problem, my wife got the option wherein—you guessed it—the meatballs are instead stuffed into an excavated loaf. So as not to skimp on the sauce, the server drizzles a spoonful of marinara in between each ball. Sure enough, no more slippage. But even so, part of the ecstatic pleasure of eating a meatball sandwich is the marinara itself, lots of it, which clearly a stuffed sandwich severely restricts. You trade convenience for sloppiness. In yet a third variation, you can get the traditional sliced bread with meatballs cut in half.

WiseGuy Italian Street Food
Issaquah Farmers Market and food truck

No ‘Garbage’ Here: Luigi’s Italian Sandwiches (Medford, OR)


I thought I was in the wrong area, looking for Luigi’s Italian Sandwiches, surrounded by Macy’s, J. C. Penney, The Gap, Sports Authority, and the like. A neighborhood joint was what I was expecting. Then, I saw it, a small building sitting on the corner of Ohio and N Riverside, across the street from the sprawling Rogue Valley Mall.

I’m guessing little has changed since 1969 when Luigi’s first opened. There are a paltry few places to sit down outside, still more room than the few stools lined up next to a small counter along the south side of the walk-in area, no more than eight-ft square. It’s best to order take-out or eat in your car, which you can park in an equally small, tight lot.

Luigi's Italian Sandwiches

Luigi’s Italian Sandwiches

A dozen people were crammed inside, most of them waiting for their orders to be filled. The menu is thankfully perched above everyone’s head, easy to read. For me, it would be an obvious choice, the Garbage Grinder (labeled ‘World Famous’), the sandwich that brought Luigi’s fame. My wife spotted on the menu Luigi’s meatball sandwich, conjuring up visions of Pizza Napoli’s near LAX (now closed). All sandwiches can be ordered in three sizes: small (6″), regular (8″) or large (12″). We each ordered the small.

There are nine kinds of grinders, each with different fillings (including a vegetarian). All of them are served open-faced, exactly as they come out of the small, flat, stainless steel oven, like a pizza. And there the similarity to the pie doesn’t end because the bread is more pizza-like than, say, French roll, having a denser chew and developing a crackly exterior as it bakes. It is also thin, which places the emphasis as it should on the toppings. The ‘Garbage’ (image above) has salami, ham and pepperoni, two kinds of melted cheese (one of which is mozzarella) and their ‘secret’ sauce. After baking, the sandwich is topped with fresh vegetables: mild sliced onions, half moons of Roma tomatoes, green bell peppers, pickles, olive oil and something called EZ salt. Every sandwich is made-to-order, which can end up in a long wait when there are lots of customers, but the result is piping hot. Fold the sandwich over in half and eat. The Garbage Grinder (☆☆☆☆) is my third excellent dish I’ve enjoyed on this road trip.

The meatball sandwich came on a French roll. It too is baked, with a smear of house-made spaghetti sauce and minced onion and bell peppers and sliced mushrooms. My wife liked the sandwich (☆☆☆), especially its savory meatballs, though she prefers the southern Italian version which has a zestier sauce (marinara) and more of it, and no visible aromatic vegetables.

Meatball sandwich

Meatball sandwich

On the wall is a map of the U.S. where customers can place a push pin where they’re from. Started in February of this year, there were at least three pins from all 50 states, a remarkable statistic. It would be interesting if there was also a map of the world. Luigi’s claims to make 150-200 sandwiches per day. Is Luigi’s an excuse to stop in Medford when passing through again? It would be a great temptation, I’ll say that.

Luigi’s Italian Sandwiches
1819 N Riverside Ave
Medford, OR

Lunch at Pallino Pastaria (University Village)


Italian restaurants around here have gone upscale. It’s almost impossible to find a ristorante with reasonable prices, especially in the suburbs where it’s unlikely you’ll come across a neighborhood spot. In walkable U.S. cities with large Italian-American populations like along the East Coast and in Chicago, this is probably not the case, but out here in the West, it’s a no-show. A plate of spaghetti with meatballs for $15? I don’t usually bite.

That’s why it’s a welcome relief that restaurants like Pallino Pastaria have come in to fill the gap. I suspect that Olive Garden owes much of its success to the value the chain provides. Though Pallino is a Washington chain, their mission is to serve well-prepared Italian food at less than a king’s ransom in an informal, family-oriented setting. Does it work? Their expansion into other locations over the years shows that it has. Is it gourmet food? No, but it’s pretty good.

Take their meatball sub sandwich (Meatball pomodoro) (☆☆☆). Four two-inch meatballs are served in a freshly baked ciabatta roll, lightly dressed with a very good tomato sauce. My gold standard for such a sandwich was a little take-out in Westchester near LAX airport. Now closed, Pizza Napoli made the most delicious meatballs that were topped with mozzarella slices, slathered in a sauce that usually wound up on my shirt and sandwiched inside the lightest of baguette-style rolls. I think in the early days, I might’ve gone once a week for that sub. But, in fairness to other sandwiches to which it has since been compared, Pizza Napoli’s was a Southern Italian version that had great appeal to me for its zesty killer marinara. Pallino’s is a very good version without Napoli’s lava flow of sauce but livened up by marinated bell peppers that added zing. A good panade tenderized the well-seasoned beef and pork meatballs. A difficult sandwich to hold without the insides falling out, cutting the meatballs in half should stabilize the situation.

Meatball pomodoro

Meatball pomodoro

Closer to a tomato explosion was their soup (pappa di pomodoro) (☆☆☆½) chockfull of fresh tomato chunks and thickened with bread. This was a zesty soup, tart, slightly sweet and herbal, delicious and satisfying. My wife orders it almost every time we dine at Pallino. Despite the soup’s excellence, my preference is their Italian wedding soup (☆☆☆½) that is more brothy and savory, which I didn’t get today.

Pappa di pomodoro

Pappa di pomodoro

Finally, we shared a chopped salad (☆☆☆) that was dressed with a judicious amount of a mild Italian vinaigrette. I prefer not having big slices of chicken breast in a chopped salad, but this is a minor quibble.

Chopped salad

Chopped salad

We wound up at Pallino Pastaria as we were surveying the restaurants in University Village, almost every one of them aimed at a well-heeled crowd, including the all-Asian-noodles-to-all-people, Boom. For about half the price of other places, we enjoyed a satisfying meal.

Pallino Pastaria
2626 NE 46th St.
Seattle, WA 98105
206.522.8617