Douglas Leong had lived in the Bay Area for over twenty years and never once found an Italian hero that could rival the sandwiches he grew up eating in New York City. But for years he'd been cooking East Coast-style Italian-American food for his two teenage daughters and their friends, at home and for various potluck events, always with rave results. Leong started thinking that if he really wanted that elusive hero, maybe he'd have to take matters into his own hands.
He said to himself, "Shit, everyone likes my cooking. Why don't I just do it?"
So Leong got a few investors together and opened Uncle Dougie's New York Style Italian Heroes in Oakland's up-and-coming Uptown neighborhood. As it turns out, the unpretentious little sandwich shop is part of a growing trend here in the East Bay: After years of local chefs "reinterpreting" East Coast classics, using seasonal ingredients and applying a more upscale, Cal-cuisine sensibility, a number of transplanted East Coasters have started serving the real-deal, straight-up, down-and-dirty comfort foods of their childhoods — much to the delight of nostalgic ex-New Yorkers and former Philadelphians, who until recently had to fly home to get their hands on a decent eggplant parmesan sandwich or an Italian ice or a stromboli.
So, what is a hero, anyway?
New England has its grinders, Philadelphia has its hoagies, and New Jersey (to say nothing of a certain rapidly expanding fast food mega-chain) has its subs. They're all vaguely Italian-tasting sandwiches served on a split oblong roll — "hero" just happens to be the name used in New York. (An article posted on the wall at Uncle Dougie's explains that the term dates back to 1930s Italian laborers in New York — supposedly the name came from the idea that the sandwich was so big you had to be a "hero" to finish eating it, but that part might be apocryphal.)
A basic Italian sandwich might come with cold cuts and cheeses, but Uncle Dougie's only serves hot sandwiches, at $6.50 apiece: Italian meatloaf, sausage and peppers, chicken parmesan, and eggplant parmesan — each doused with a big scoop of homemade tomato sauce. Any self-respecting New York pizzeria probably sells these four sandwiches, with the only exception being the meatloaf, which Leong serves instead of the more traditional meatball hero because he finds the meat fits into the sandwich better that way.
The keys to an authentic hero, Leong says, are the bread and the sauce, and the main thing with the bread is that it has to be soft. Here in California there's a tendency to use artisan baguettes and such — breads with a hard, crackly crust.
"Put it this way," Leong said. "East Coast people say to me, 'When they make sandwiches here, that stuff cuts your gums when you bite into it.'"
Leong's bread is custom-baked for him by the Italian French Baking Co. in San Francisco. It comes in wide two-foot-long loaves — soft, but with enough heft to soak up plenty of tomato sauce without falling apart. Definitely not sourdough, Leong is quick to point out: "My friends in New York would be like, 'You're serving it on what?'"
As far as the sauce, Leong says the main difference is that on the East Coast, tomato sauces tend to be sweeter, a product of the ingredients and the cooking technique (rather than the addition of sugar). He explained, "As you start going west, the sauce starts getting tangier and tangier" — and it's that overly acidic taste that New York transplants find particularly off-putting.
By all outward appearances, Leong — a wiry middle-age Chinese American with flamboyant red-dyed hair — seems like an unlikely ambassador for old-school Italian-American food. But when the guy opens his mouth, the accent is pure New York, his speech dotted with "wiseguys" and "hey, mans."
Growing up near the border between Chinatown and Little Italy, Leong was schooled in the finer points of chopped garlic and marinara from an early age by his Italian-American "uncle," Jerry Longabardi, a close family friend who used to cook home-style Italian dishes whenever he'd come over.
"I took a liking to pasta actually more than I did to rice," Leong said.
He says he must have been thirteen or fourteen years old when he started asking Longabardi to teach him how to cook. Leong would follow his uncle around in the kitchen, picking up techniques, learning recipes — more or less the same ones he uses at Uncle Dougie's today.
Leong would be the first to admit that his food isn't refined or fussy; in fact, this is a point of pride. He doesn't use organic chicken ("growing up in New York ... shit, chicken was chicken"); he doesn't use buzzwords like "sustainable" or "green."
But there is an honesty to the food. Each morning you'll find Leong in the kitchen grilling sausages on the flat-top or frying chicken cutlets. He makes big batches of tomato sauce from scratch every week, using his Uncle Jerry's secret recipe. He roasts his peppers himself; nothing comes out of a can or jar. And the bread comes in fresh every morning — Leong only buys as much as he can use in one day.
The taste? Classic East Coast. Which is to say that it tastes like what someone's Italian-American grandma might whip up. The meatloaf is juicy and moist. The bread is wonderful, toasted until it has a slight crunch to it, but definitely soft — nothing that's going to cut up your mouth — with a pleasant chew. The sauce is thin but with a nice, understated sweetness to it.
Leong, who has also started doing all-you-can-eat buffet dinners ($12, RSVP only) at Uncle Dougie's on alternating Friday nights, says his restaurant's decor — graffiti on the walls, old-school red-and-white checkered tablecloths on the tables — is just as important to creating an authentic East Coast experience as anything else.
"If you've ever been to New York or read about it or heard about it," he said, "you walk in here, you say, 'Shit, this is New York.'"
Braedon Galloway was running a concessions business in his native Philadelphia when he found out from a friend in the Bay Area that Italian ice — water ice, as it's called in Philly — pretty much didn't exist out here. Sensing an opportunity, Galloway sold his business, packed his bags, and, last year, opened up Flavor Brigade on Fruitvale Avenue in the Dimond District, where he and a business partner sell batch-frozen Straus organic ice cream, water ice, and frozen custard.
Water ice is basically a mixture of fruit purée, sugar, and water that's processed through a batch freezer the same way ice cream would be. The result is a frozen confection that's smooth, brightly colored (from added food coloring), and surprisingly creamy.
Galloway makes all of his water ices from scratch on-site and offers about a dozen different flavors at a time — lemon, mango, and coconut are a few of the more popular options.
"When it gets hot out, to me, there's nothing better," he says. "It just quenches your thirst, it cools you down."
Unlike ice cream, Galloway notes, water ices are also fat-free, cholesterol-free, and dairy-free.
In many ways, he says, the product is very similar to a sorbet, except that the fruit content is a little bit lower. What's interesting, though, is that while sorbet is marketed as a high-end product — often with high-end prices to match — Italian ices are sometimes seen as more of a "low" food item, or something mostly for children.
For his part, Galloway prefers to view this in a more positive way: "It's definitely a street item, something everybody can afford," he said. "I mean, I literally have homeless people come here to buy dollar cups of Italian ice almost every day."
On the East Coast, and in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in particular, shops selling water ice and frozen custard are ubiquitous. Here in Oakland, however, Galloway faces the challenge inherent in trying to introduce a product that most potential customers might never have even heard of.
This is particularly true of frozen custard, a name which, Galloway says, many locals seem to find off-putting. "I think they associate it with pudding or the filling that's in a doughnut," he explained.
In reality, frozen custard is very similar to soft-serve ice cream, except that the butter fat content is significantly higher. The custard served at Flavor Brigade is 11 percent fat, whereas soft-serve ice cream like the kind you'd get at McDonald's is at most 6 percent — and many places use an entirely non-dairy powder base.
The difference in the end product is a matter of both taste and texture: A scoop of vanilla frozen custard from Flavor Brigade will likely be the thickest, creamiest and, yes, most delicious soft-serve ice cream you've ever tasted.
Galloway's favorite specialty is something he calls the 2nd Street: basically a layer of water ice sandwiched between two generous scoops of frozen custard. It's the kind of summertime treat that'll make any born-and-raised Jersey boy (this journalist included) swoon.
Meanwhile, after about a year of furious free-sample-giving, Galloway says the tide has started to turn. When he first opened, about 70 percent of his sales were for ice cream — now about 80 percent of his business is water ice. And, among East Coast transplants anyway, word is getting out about the frozen custard, too. Galloway says he gets customers driving from places as far away as Half Moon Bay, Pittsburg, and Antioch.
"I get a lot of fathers that want to show their kids what they grew up with," he said. Or, "'Oh, I haven't had this since I was a little girl in Brooklyn.' I get that all the time."
Michael Boyd had already been cooking in restaurant kitchens for most of his life when he first came out to the Bay Area seven years ago, but he immediately fell in love with the food scene here. He says he was "blown away" by the quality and variety of produce at Berkeley Bowl and at the farmers' markets.
Still, there were times when Boyd found himself missing some of the foods of his New Jersey childhood. So he jumped at the opportunity to partner with the owner of Alameda's Lucky 13 bar to open up a tiny restaurant next door — Scolari's Good Eats — where Boyd has put a number of hard-to-find East Coast specialties on the menu.
In terms of authenticity, Boyd says he makes pretty classic renditions of, say, a New York-style pizza or an Italian cold-cut sandwich. He even admits it irks him sometimes when a local comes in and asks him to Californiafy a sandwich by putting avocados on it.
"I'm not saying that I won't ever have avocado here," he said with a grin. "But it probably won't go on someone's sandwich."
At the same time, Boyd doesn't mind taking a somewhat more refined approach to the comfort foods of his youth. He uses local and seasonal ingredients whenever he can. And he's willing to put his own creative twists on certain East Coast classics.
For instance, as Boyd explains, a stromboli is essentially a "a pizza without the sauce that's rolled up like a strudel." You bake it, cut it up, and serve it with a tomato dipping sauce — "basically, a glorified Hot Pocket," he jokes.
The classic stromboli on the menu at Scolari's has pepperoni, ham, salami, and mozzarella, and it's more or less what you could find at any pizzeria on the East Coast. But Boyd also offers another version, dubbed the "Whitey," whose ingredients include sautéed spinach and goat cheese, and which you'd probably never find in New Jersey. Sometimes he'll even put a vegan stromboli up on the specials board.
Whichever permutation you order, the stromboli at Scolari's has a surprisingly light crust thanks to a dough that's had a slow-cold rise of at least 48 hours — for the best texture and flavor, Boyd says. It's the same dough he uses for his pizza, an off-the-menu item he sells by the slice whenever he has a chance to make it.
Scolari's also has a "crispy hot dog" on the menu, a version of the deep-fried hot dog (or "ripper") that's served at a popular North Jersey eatery. Again, Boyd ups the ante by using a more natural, sausage-like dog instead of a traditional commercial wiener.
Boyd says he's been surprised to see just how many people from New Jersey are living in the Bay Area — and while his rotating list of specials at Scolari's also has Latin, Asian, and Middle-Eastern influences, for these folks, anyway, it's all about the East Coast diner grub.
As Boyd put it, "It's pretty easy to tell when someone's from New Jersey or the East Coast because the first thing that comes out of their mouth when they see Taylor Ham on the menu is, 'Holy shit!' It's like it brings out the Jersey in them."
Taylor Ham (aka pork roll), Boyd explains, is a kind of cross between Spam and Canadian bacon, and pretty much every deli or bagel shop in New Jersey will offer a Taylor Ham, egg, and cheese sandwich — otherwise known as the "Jersey breakfast" — as its standard breakfast sandwich.
Served on the same challah buns Boyd ships in from the East Coast for his burgers, this is as good a breakfast sandwich as you can find in the Bay Area: compact, perfectly balanced, and satisfyingly savory. The ham itself, which of course is made in New Jersey, is deeply smoky, with nice crisp edges after being grilled on the flat-top.
Boyd explains that when you order one of these sandwiches in New Jersey, they'll typically ask you if you want "salt, pepper, ketchup" on it. The poor newbs who have grown up in the Bay Area are inevitably confused when they're first asked that at Scolari's, perhaps wondering what kind of special condiment "salt-pepper ketchup" might be.
But someone from Jersey? How, according to Boyd, might they respond to that question?