To each, his own sandwich
By THOMAS C. TOBIN
Tomorrow's NFC Championship game will come, and it will go. Players will move on, coaches will be fired. Even the venue -- Veterans Stadium -- will be demolished next year.
But the two cities that have staked so much pride on a Bucs-Eagles final score will always have their sandwiches.
For Tampa Bay, it's the Cuban sandwich, formulated in Tampa's Ybor City around 1900 as a 15-cent lunch for the Cuban immigrants who worked in cigar factories.
For Philadelphia, it's the cheese steak, born in the 1920s when a South Philadelphia hot dog vendor named Pat Olivieri wanted something new for lunch one day and slapped some chopped meat on his grill. A few years later, at the suggestion of customers, he added cheese.
Which sandwich will you be eating at kickoff?
Both are so gloriously endowed with meat that a carnivore from either locale could not credibly say the rival city's sandwich is bad.
Forget what you think of the Eagles' quarrelsome fans or their elusive quarterback, Donovan McNabb.
What pewter-bleeding Bucs fan would turn from a steaming mound of steak, cheese and onions resting softly on an Italian bun baked in South "Philly?"
What hard-hatted Eagles fan would refuse the spicy mixture of meats, cheese, pickles and mustard, wrapped in the crispy goodness of Tampa-baked Cuban bread?
Can't we all just get along?
It is, of course, more complicated than that. The people of both cities tend to go with what they know.
"I'm familiar with the Cuban," said a lukewarm Jim Trivelis, vice president of The Original Philadelphia Cheesesteak Co., which ships Philly-style meat products across the country.
"Obviously," he said, "I'm from Philadelphia, and I would say there is no comparison -- and if I said otherwise, I would be shot." The cheese steak trumps the Cuban because of the tenderness of the meat and the "flavor profile" of the sandwich, he said.
Trivelis added that the mineral content in Philadelphia's water is so unique that you can use all the right ingredients in another city and still get a subpar result.
"Never heard of it," said Joe Vento, the long-time owner of Geno's Steaks, when quizzed about the Cuban sandwich.
Geno's is one of two famous cheese steak restaurants that have competed on a South Philadelphia street corner for 36 years. The other is Pat's King of Steaks, opened in 1930 by cheese steak inventor Pat Olivieri.
The secret to a cheese steak, Vento said, is the ingredients.
"You can tell," he said. "The flavor's there, the smell's there. No gristle, a little marble. And you don't want a real heavy roll . . . Just a little firmness, not too firm."
When someone slathers on the mayonnaise, he said, "it's heartbreaking."
His competitor at Pat's, Frank Olivieri Jr., is less injured when customers experiment. "If that's the way you like it," he said, "that's the way you like it."
Olivieri's big beef is with area cheese steak makers who cut the meat so thin, "you could read a newspaper through it."
A former condo owner in South Florida, he has tried Cuban sandwiches and likes them all right. "But if I was in Philadelphia, I'd have to eat a cheese steak," Olivieri said. "If I'm in Miami, I'd eat a Cuban."
But associating the Cuban sandwich with Miami is a mistake, said Cuban-born Jack Espinosa, the retired spokesman for the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, who is writing a book on growing up in Ybor City. The title: Cuban Bread Crumbs.
The Cuban sandwich, Espinosa said, is a uniquely Tampa phenomenon, developed by Cubans who settled in the city long before their countrymen came to Miami.
Then, it was called a "sandwich mixto," because the mix of ingredients, he said. "If you ask for one in Cuba, they look at you like there's something wrong with you."
A first-rate Cuban sandwich contains smoked ham, Genoa salami, Swiss cheese and marinated roasted pork, said Tim Booth, owner of Silver Ring Cafe in Tampa, which has been serving the item since 1947. "When you bite into a Cuban sandwich," he said, "you're supposed to taste everything in it." Booth has tried cheese steaks but says they don't approach the Cuban.
Unlike the Philadelphia hoagie roll, Cuban bread contains lard. After a day or so, it can harden, which explains why John Russ, a Philadelphia-area native, had a poor Cuban sandwich encounter about 10 years ago in Key West.
"I found it a little dry," said Russ, a Virginia liquor salesman who runs a Web site listing the nation's best cheese steak joints. "I'm not a big crust person," he added. "No offense to the Cuban."
Russ was one of several cheese steak experts who politely said they respected -- even feared -- the Bucs but believed their Eagles would prevail.
Espinosa feels differently, having had Bucs season tickets since the team's first game.
"I'm keeping my fingers crossed," he said of Sunday's big game. "And I'll bet you a Cuban sandwich we will kick their a--."
HOW TO MAKE ONE: Between two pieces of Cuban bread from La Segunda Central Bakery in Tampa, layer these ingredients: baked or smoked ham, roast pork, salami, Swiss cheese, dill pickles, yellow mustard. Bake or press on a grill to crisp the bread and bring out flavors in the meats and cheese.
VARIATIONS: Some like to add mayo, lettuce, tomato. Marinating the pork in mojo sauce is a popular practice. The original Cuban included turkey.
HOW TO RUIN ONE: Use bologna or add ketchup.
ESTIMATED CALORIES: 600-700
ACCOMPANIMENTS: Black beans and rice. Spanish bean soup. Any beer. Cup of Cuban coffee.
Philly cheese steak
HOW TO MAKE ONE: Cook chopped onions in oil, set aside. Cook and chop thin slices of frozen ribeye, sirloin or top round. Add provolone cheese until melted. Lift meat and cheese onto a roll from Amorosos Baking Co. in Philadelphia. Lay cooked onions in the roll alongside the meat and cheese.
VARIATIONS: Mushrooms and peppers of all kinds are popular items to be cooked with onions. Kraft Cheez Whiz or American cheese are often used in place of provolone. Add pizza sauce and make a pizza cheese steak.
HOW TO RUIN ONE: Try to make one at home.
ESTIMATED CALORIES: 500-600
ACCOMPANIMENTS: Fries with cheese. Herr's potato chips. Tastykake Butterscotch Krimpets. Frank's Black Cherry Wishniak soda.
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