I was ready for this one. I’d been training (cue Rocky music). I knew that I had to dig a little deep to win this battle. It wasn’t going to be a cake and cookie kind of day – it was going to be a meat day. Not just any meat too, but cold cuts – the tough, streetwise product of meat. Meat that’s processed in butcher shops by grown men in bloodied, white coats who work their magic with grinders, bone saws, filet knives and gumption along with the right combination of seasonings and nitrates. The gritty side of the otherwise glamorous world of meat. Game on.
When I saw it was Cold Cuts Day, I remembered one of the local companies I follow on social media: RI Food Fights. They’re really more of an event organizer than they are a brick and mortar business. Every month, they host their food fights by pitting great Rhode Island eateries against each other in a battle for dominance over one particular food item. They get a group of restaurants to participate in whatever the month-long battle will be. You then buy a passport which allows you to go to each of the participating restaurants throughout the month and try their version of whatever that month’s food fight is. February was a battle for best donuts. January was best wings. This month just happens to be an Italian Grinder Throwdown as over 20 restaurants vie for the title of best Italian grinder in our great little state. I thought that was a an excellent deal (only $20 for a passport that gets you 20 free subs) but I also thought it was serendipitous that they were hosting an Italian grinder throwdown on a day that I was paying homage to cold cuts. It became clear to me how I should celebrate this day.
Full disclosure here: I contacted the folks at RI Food Fights and asked if they could hook a struggling blogger up so I could test out their service and share my opinions with my readers. They were very enthusiastic about this and gave me a complimentary passport. That was nice. I will say that their service is a great deal. You get to taste over 20 different grinders this month and it only costs $20. That’s a great deal for the consumer. For the restaurants involved, it gets people coming to their restaurant. Obviously, if you do this, as the customer you should try other stuff on the restaurant menus too – see what else they have to offer and spend some cash. Plus, always tip your servers too (based on the total of what your bill would have been before the Italian grinder is taken off the bill). Happy customers will share their pictures and reviews online, so restaurants get the added exposure of that. When I first saw RI Food Fights, I loved everything about their service, so I was excited to having connected with them. They have a great Instagram feed too, so follow along. There’s still time to get a passport for March, but they also have other battles coming in the months ahead like a Cupcake Championship on March 19th and a Burger Throwdown for May.
Back to meat now. First off, a grinder is what we call a sub here in Rhode Island. I know that confuses some people, so a grinder is a submarine sandwich aka as a sub, a wedge, a hoagie or a hero. You get the gist. Second, just so you know, an Italian grinder is a sandwich served on a sub roll made with meats such as salami, mortadella, capicolla and ham along with provolone or American cheese, tomato, onion, sour pickle, green bell pepper, black olives, olive oil or salad oil, salt and black pepper. According to my extensive research on Wikipedia, the original Italian grinder was invented in Portland, ME in 1903 by Giovanni Amato, and anyone who has spent time in Portland knows that Amato’s, which is still open today and has a chain of restaurants, has a great Italian sub. I had no idea that they were the originators, but I can attest to their quality. Today, Italian grinders are everywhere, including Rhode Island. Our plan was to set off and check out the ones on the RI Food Fight tour. My goal at the start of the day was to hit five places. That’s a lofty goal (and probably extremely unhealthy too), but I had been training. I was ready. Lola was going to come with me for moral support and also as my medical proxy in case I slipped off into a nitrate-induced coma. Let the games begin.
We hit a few stumbling blocks out of the gate. First, we got a late start to the day. We had a visit from Cherie and Calix and we lost track of time as we got to talking and playing. Anytime you get to play with Calix is worth any delays, so no regrets, but we didn’t make it on the road until 1 pm (which is a late lunch). The second little bump in the road was Lola got about 2 hours of sleep the night before, so she was having a rough day. She wasn’t quite sure if she had a cold cut tour in her and her excessive tiredness wasn’t making her decision making any easier. In the end, I talked her into coming, but it delayed us a little more. We finally hit our first restaurant which was in Cranston at about 1:45. It was a place called Dee’s Deli and it was a small little building that looked like it was an institution in that city. We got out of our car, opened the door and they told us the news – they were out of bread. So far, this day was not going to plan. With heads hung low, we walked out grinder less and forlorn. It looked like Dee’s was a little hidden gem of a spot too and having sold out of bread was a sign that they were busy, so we were sorry to have missed the opportunity. BUt the tour must go on so we looked at the next spot on our list and luckily, it was right around the corner in Cranston. It was called The Big Cheese & Pub.
It looked like The Big Cheese was a popular place in town because it was still busy at 2 pm on a Friday, and it just had that feel of being a popular spot. It’s kind of an unassuming building from the outside, although they have a huge awning with their name facing the street, but from the back where you enter, it looks like a small little brick building. Inside however was nice and cozy. It had a classic restaurant look to it with wood paneling and dark wood booths all under bright lighting and an all around friendly atmosphere. We sat down and placed our order. We got the Italian Grinder along with a beer, soda and some chips. Normally we would have gotten more, but we knew we would have more grinders coming, so we held back. Their menu listed the ingredients as Genoa salami, ham and provolone. The server asked us if we wanted hot peppers on it and we did. In a few minutes it came out, nice and toasted with the provolone melted across the top.
I didn’t know it at the time, but this ended up being my favorite of the day. I liked the fact that it was toasted this way and the melted cheese helped keep everything inside the bread. The bread was outstanding too. The menu said they baked all their own bread and you could tell – it was nice and crusty on the outside, doughy on the inside. The hot peppers were a nice touch too (peperoncinos) – I always forget how I like them on a sandwich. We were pretty happy and felt we scored right off the bat on our tour today. We paid the bill and then headed back out to the car to plot our next move. This is when the comedy of errors began.
There were two other venues in Cranston that we saw on the RI Food Fight tour. One was about five minutes away, the other about fifteen. We decided to head to the one fifteen minutes away just to give our bellies the extra ten minutes to digest – we figured that would help. We trudged across town and found the spot with plenty of parking on the street. When we walked inside, we were met by a man who was sitting down on a stool in front of the cash register. We said hello and he gave us a pretty unenthusiastic greeting. We said we wanted the grinder and a few other things. The whole interaction just wasn’t feeling very welcoming. Lola was giving me the nudge to leave, and when he said he didn’t take credit cards, we saw the opening and left. Making people feel welcome is job one of anyone in hospitality, and this place failed at that, so we were happy with our decision. We left and plotted our next stop which would be in Providence. We wanted to get to Providence before the traffic started, so the plan was to get there, and then hit a few spots on the list. We found one place that was in a weird part on the outskirts of town and it confused our GPS, but when we finally got there we were met by a locked door that said they didn’t open until 5 pm. Foiled again. We went back to the list and then headed towards a place in the heart of Providence. Traffic wasn’t too bad and we made it there in about fifteen minutes. We even found a parking spot on the street right in front of the restaurant. We walked towards the doors with enthusiasm but when we pulled on the handle, they were locked. The place closes at 4 PM everyday, except 3:30 on Friday. It was 3:45.
This was getting silly. Back in the car and we plotted our next spot. We checked their website and they were indeed open, so we put the address in Google maps and were on our way. Traffic was a little heavier now, but manageable. Then we came down a road in which you have to take a right or left at the end. It the middle of that intersection was a car which appeared to be missing a wheel. That slowed traffic down more. Eventually we got through and approached our destination, although something didn’t look right. We were in an odd neighborhood with a lot of garages and car lots. And no restaurants. We looked at the address again and realized the restaurant was in East Providence, not Providence – both cities have a street by the same name. Now we were out right hungry and frustrated and not at a restaurant. We pulled over and found our next stop. It was actually around the corner and it was open too. The best news was that it was right behind Atwells Street on Federal Hill – which is good news for any fan of food in Rhode Island. The restaurant was called Timmy’s Legendary Grilled Pizza on Spruce Street.
When we walked inside, the restaurant was nice and bright. White textured walls with a black base which brought out the red of the wood in the tables. There were a few people in the restaurant, but they weren’t that busy as you would expect at that time of day. We were greeted immediately and told to sit where we liked, so we got a nice spot right in the front window. It smelled great inside too. We were recovering from our travels at this point, so we were excited to be sitting down. We were hungry too. I told Lola that I was going to eat the whole sub by myself, so she should get what she wanted. They specialize in grilled pizza, so she opted for one of those. We got a beer and a glass of wine too. The server was super friendly and gave us good advice. He asked us about the passport too and said it was good for getting people in the doors. The food arrived in no time and looked awesome.
That pizza smelled so good I literally just sniffed it for almost a solid minute. But today was about cold cuts, so I dove into my sandwich. Here’s the thing – I’m not a fan of balsamic vinegar. I got sick on it the first time I ever tasted it and it always seems to not sit well in my stomach when I have it. I avoid it as much as I can. I get the allure. Lola loves it, but it’s not my favorite. An Italian grinder should be sprinkled in oil and vinegar. And this one was, however this one used balsamic. A healthy does of balsamic. So this sandwich was not my favorite, but that’s completely my bias. If you like balsamic, it was actually a great sandwich. It started with great bread which you could taste was freshly made – nice and crusty. The meat and cheese were at the bottom of the sandwich and all tasted good together. On top of that were the veggies which were crisp Romaine lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions and banana peppers. All really good. I think they tossed the veggies together as a salad in the balsamic and then dump that atop the meat. That allowed them to heat the bottom portion with the meat and cheese while not heating up the veggies. That’s a lot of love into making a sandwich. Had I just said no balsamic, I’d be raving about this grinder. However, that kind of tainted it for me. Lola had a bite and she liked it, although at that point she was all about the pizza which was fabulous. It was a great choice. The server said they have a nice little patio outside in the summer, so we will definitely be back. It was a great spot that we would not have discovered had we not sought out their Italian grinder, so that what this throwdown brings you.
While it was still early, our zest for fulfilling a five sandwich day was slowly losing steam. Plus, Lola, she of the two hours sleep, was starting to fade. We decided to pack it in and hit one more place on the way home. That gave us two options: the spot in East Providence which we had tried to go to or a restaurant in Warren which was closer to our house. Traffic was heavy now (it was about 5:30), so I decided to get out of Providence and head home. Warren would be a nice little stop. Our coordinates were set and we eventually arrived at our final spot of the day: Perella’s Ristorante.
At this point, Lola was done. She was ready to be home, in pajamas and on our couch. But I pushed her to make the final stop. Part of her wanted to stay in the car when I went in, but she relented and joined me. She made it clear she was too full for anymore food. The place was in a busy section of town that I was not familiar with. It was a big building with a nice sign out front and welcoming to anyone zipping by. We went in an decided to sit in the bar – we knew we would be quick. The waitress came over and took our order for a beer and some wine, and we placed the order for the grinder too. I didn’t think she had seen any of the passports yet, because she seemed a bit confused, but she was helpful and friendly about everything else. The menu there looked really great and they specialized in pastas with a seafood flair with two items identified as having won the state’s Pasta Challenge (their cioppino, a fish stew in a marinara sauce, and their Stan Ross Seafood Special, shrimp, scallops and little necks in a clam sauce over pasta). The Italian grinder was on the menu, but not really featured. It was more part of the standard list of sandwiched you see on Italian restaurant menu. Still, someone that makes good food makes good food, so I had high hopes for their version. It came out of the kitchen in no time.
This sandwich was your more typical Italian Grinder, which is not a bad thing. First, it was served cold and that’s kind of how an authentic sandwich would come. It was heavy on the meat too with a bigger portion of each type of meat inside. I could have used a bit more cheese to counterbalance the meat super-sizing. The veggies were fresh and topped with the right amount of oil and salt and pepper too. The bread was nice and soft, like a good sub roll should be, although having eaten the fresh crusty bread earlier in the day, I think I missed that taste. But a good sandwich nonetheless.
I ate this as fast as I could because I know Lola wanted get home. That’s not easy considering it was my third sandwich of the afternoon. I trudged through and soon we were on our way. We came up a little short on our plans here of hitting five spots, although I will say we tried our best. Sometimes that just how it goes. And while I was trying to squeeze this all in today for National Cold Cuts Day, my RI Food Fight passport will work all month, so I still have another 16 restaurants whose grinders I can taste. That will make this a pretty tasty month. I really have to say how great this passport deal is. If you like food, keep your eye on what they are doing and play along. It’s worth it.
All in all, I’d say I gave cold cuts their proper due today. There is no more marquis sandwich than the Italian grinder when it comes to highlighting the awesomeness of cold cuts. It’s the ham, the salami, the capicolla – all in one cozy home. Cold cuts make lunch better, otherwise we’d all be eating tunafish. It deserves this day to be honored and I hope you all partake in the joys of the cold cut. Step right up to your deli man or woman and ask for your favorite with pride. You are just celebrating the magic of the meat we all love. So keep them slicing and enjoying the spoils! Life’s too short to not live the passion of cold cuts.
Next Up: National Pound Cake Day