Pressed into Service: The salami, aged Belgian goat cheese, and arugula panino from Locolat.
Pressed into Service: The salami, aged Belgian goat cheese, and arugula panino from Locolat. Credit: Darrow Montgomery

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The general feeling from people who think about these things is that the District is still not a sandwich town, no matter how many Taylor Gourmet shops Casey Patten and David Mazza decide to erect as an homage to the Italian hoagies of their youth. The same goes for the surrounding area, too.

The reasons are many, they tell me. Our Jewish delis, our Italian delis, our Greeks delis—none of them compare to the best in New York, Chicago, or Philadelphia, those dark wooden shops that practically drip with history, aged balsamic vinegar, and the drool of those patiently waiting in line for a sandwich piled high with house-made pastrami or the finest imported Italian salami.

Oh, our street sandwiches suck, too, they say, as if we needed the reminder. But mostly they point out the same thing that everyone loves to point out about the District: our population’s chronic inability to remain rooted in place long enough to develop a thriving culture around it, food or otherwise. Where’s our Little Italy, like Philly’s (no Maggiano’s jokes, please) and where’s our Greektown, like Chicago’s?

Sure, we have the Eden Center, home to a number of excellent Vietnamese banh mi, one of the world’s great sandwiches. But as Mark Furstenberg, a baker with more than a passing knowledge of foods stuffed between slices of bread, opines: Sandwiches “have to be in some way reachable by people.” Each and every one of the Eden Center’s banh mi may be attainable to those who work in Falls Church, “but they’re not really reachable for the rest of us,” he says.

Part of the problem is simple scale. We’re not an island crammed with a million and a half people; we’re a sprawling metro area with spotty public transit. You can’t just walk around the corner for a quality, non-Quiznos sandwich in D.C. You have to work for it. The other problem, as one former New York chef told me, D.C. doesn’t have a widespread culture of culinary excellence. We don’t expect that little corner market to sell a good sandwich on a crusty roll made fresh that morning in some suburban bakery. In New York, she said, you either serve decent food or you die. There’s too much competition.

All of these generalizations have some truth to them, but I have to say, I think D.C.’s sandwich prospects are looking up, and I’m not thinking just about the budding Taylor Gourmet empire, with its dedication to well-sourced ingredients, like the Niman Ranch product used in its new line of pork hoagies. I’m thinking about all the tiny cheese shops, wine stores, pizzerias, and chocolate boutiques where some terrific sandwiches are hiding in plain sight.

Several weeks ago, I decided to conduct a search for some of D.C.’s best sandwiches. I had no idea how simultaneously easy and daunting the task would be: easy because of the sheer number of chefs who are turning their attention to sandwiches, and daunting because one man can eat only so much damn bread.

Sandwiches, of course, are nothing without their outer shells. Bread is more than some utilitarian ferryboat lugging ingredients from plate to mouth. Whether French baguette or Italian hoagie roll or German pumpernickel, fresh bread adds flavor, provides balance, and sometimes introduces a much needed crunch to a soft, chewy interior.

If you cut him, Anthony Pilla probably bleeds pizza sauce, but the certified pizzaiolo at Seventh Hill (327 7th St. SE, 202-544-1911) also understands proper balance in a sandwich. His small line of sandwiches all come on hand-made bread, a sort of wood-burning focaccia, which Pilla produces by forming his fresh pizza dough into an oval, dimpling it with a tool to prevent excessive air pockets when baking, and sprinkling it with olive oil, rosemary, and Parmesan. Once removed from the oven, Pilla slices open the hot pocket of crusty, cheesy bread and stuffs it with your choice of ingredients. His bread is thin, crispy, loaded with salty flavor, and just spongy enough to fall under the typical American’s idea of “focaccia.”

I’ve run through almost all of Pilla’s sandwiches. The flavors of his underseasoned grilled chicken and vegetarian offerings, while pleasant enough, speak softly and actually benefit from the umami-megaphone of his Parm-pizza bread. His prosciutto and Italian sandwiches, on the other hand, are little chatterboxes of flavor. Pilla loads up his Italian with Genoa salami, mortadella, capicola, provolone, arugula, hot peppers, tomato, and a long squeeze of mayo. The sandwich has serious bite, which is only slightly muzzled by the bread, mayo, and fatty meats. It has all the thrills and subtlety of a county fireworks display.

Niel Piferoen at Locolat (1781 Florida Ave. NW, 202-518-2570) doesn’t make his own bread, but he does the next best thing: He buys par-baked miniature baguettes from Le Nôtre, one of the great bakeries in Paris. He uses those loaves for a surprisingly expansive menu of sandwiches and panini. I’ve only begun to flirt with his made-to-order sammies but have already fallen hard for his rail-thin, runway model of a panini layered with salami, aged Belgian goat cheese, and arugula. Its par-baked baguette is brought to life, not in an oven, but on a press, which warms, crisps, and chars the exterior while leaving the interior nice and chewy, the perfect complement to meaty and velvety ingredients stuffed inside.

Over in the shadow of Union Station, chef Daniele Catalani and his team at Toscana Café (601 Second St. NE, 202-525-2693) bake ciabatta every morning, using a recipe that mixes in a healthy amount of flavor-enhancing biga into the dough. The golden blocks are pulled from the deck oven hot, fresh, and ready for the 14 sandwiches on Catalani’s menu.

Catalani’s crusty loaves are so flavorful they practically steal the show from the top-billed ingredients, particularly the Italiano’s spicy fennel pork sausage, which is a fine link, save for the casings that were (in my case) crisped into a rubbery mass better suited for teething infants. Once, the ciabatta was even MIA on my Napolitano meatball sandwich, replaced with an inferior sub roll. It didn’t distract a lick from those rich, melt-in-your mouth meatballs, braised in Catalani’s tomato sauce and shot through with fresh parsley, oregano, and roasted garlic puree. It’s the current gold standard for meatball sandwiches.

I’ve experienced the same bread switcheroo over at Cork Market and Tasting Room (1805 14th St. NW, 202-265-2674), where my vegetarian sandwich was served on house-made focaccia, as thick and cushiony as an air mattress, instead of the usual ciabatta from Lyon Bakery. It made for a brawny, doughy bite that all but beat the poor roasted, grilled, and caramelized veggies into submission. Chef Kristin Hutter makes an equally airy brioche bun, but it serves as a far better companion to her lightly dressed, dark-meat chicken salad, providing just a hint of sweetness to balance the sandwich’s bright, citric flavors. It’s a simple, refreshing chicken salad, one that doesn’t need a cup of mayo to ingratiate itself.

Like at Cork, the sandwiches at Cowgirl Creamery (919 F St. NW, 202-393-6880) are pre-made, already wrapped and waiting when you walk in the door at this downtown cheese shop. Don’t be scared; the sandwiches are prepared fresh daily, with a yogurt-based striatta bread from Baguette Republic, and rarely sit there long enough to survive the lunch rush.

Cowgirl’s sandwich menu is also seasonal, which means it’s bound to change from the one I sampled in recent weeks. But if there’s a just God, the shop will carry over its “Sweet & Spicy” made with Fra’Mani sopressata, Meadow Creek’s Grayson cheese, Virginia plum chutney, and field greens. The flavors—sweet, spicy, creamy, bitter—could wrestle a steer to the ground, but they are in perfect balance. I mean perfect. Don’t overlook Cowgirl’s vegetarian “Rock Creek” sandwich, either, with roasted red peppers, herb fromage blanc, olive tapenade, and field greens. The thing is freshness incarnate.

The A.M. Wine Shoppe (2122 18th St. NW, 202-506-2248) in Adams Morgan has something in common with Cowgirl and Cork: It’s not really a sandwich shop. As the name implies, A.M. focuses on the grape, but both Dimetri Manolatos (cousin of Cashion’s Eat Place chef/owner John Manolatos whose business partner, Justin Abad, owns the wine shop) and general manager Andrew Akre have a passion for the humble sandwich. They’ve developed a concise menu of three rotating creations, including their take on a Cubano prepared with pork shoulder confit, prosciutto cotto, spicy mustard, and comté on grilled sesame-studded bread from Lyon. The creators purposely ditched the traditional pickle stacker on their Cubano, which may be a mistake. The pungent mustard dominates like an oppressive spouse.

Akre and Manolatos display better balance with their “Admorghese,” a deli meat sandwich with pickled vegetables on sesame-seed bread, their free-form interpretation of a muffuletta. Now, I can understand how the guys draw the connection to New Orleans, but the muffuletta comparison is misleading. The Ad-Mo, as the sandwich is more commonly known in its ’hood, has a different flavor profile than the earthy olive characteristics of a muffuletta. It is sweeter (from the fennel salami) and more acidic (from those veggies) than that Crescent City ’wich. It completely stands on its own, without any need to lean on a famous forebear for legitimacy. The Ad-Mo, in short, is a great D.C. sandwich.