Ponzo's Original, the cold Italian sub offered at the new Midtown Italian takeout restaurant, comes with hard salami, cotto salami, mortadella and provolone, and is served on a toasted Italian bread roll with lettuce, tomatoes, diced Italian peppers and Ponzo's vinaigrette. It's one of the best Italian subs in town, but on a menu as strong as Ponzo's, it's little more than a side note.
The original Ponzo's was opened by an Italian immigrant named Willie Ponzo in Pasadena, California. Two of Ponzo's grandsons, Chris and Peter Burge, have decided to carry on the family tradition here in Houston. There are pictures of their grandfather and grandmother, the California deli and some of the celebrities who once ate there hanging on the wall.
My first visit to Ponzo's was on a crisp fall day. I sat at one of the three concrete tables, complete with oversize umbrellas, outside on the sidewalk. Between the tables put out by the Chinese restaurant on one side and the ones for Charivari on the other, this Midtown strip center has developed quite an alfresco dining scene.
But Ponzo's is primarily a takeout pizza joint -- and it looks the part, with a kitchen that's three times as big as the four-table indoor dining area. Despite its California roots, Ponzo's reminds me very much of an East Coast pizzeria. There, as here, you have your choice of a great crispy pizza, hot oven-baked Italian subs, or the cold sub with lettuce, tomato and vinaigrette.
I always begin my analysis of a pizza joint by ordering one with Italian sausage. When they bring you a pie with something that looks like ground meat sprinkled all over it, you can generally write the place off as a Pizza Hut clone. If, on the other hand, you see slices of real Italian sausage on your pizza, odds are you're going to get lucky. Ponzo's Italian sausage link was cut into circles. I speared one of the slices and sniffed it. An impressive blast of fennel and garlic hit my nose and a smile settled over my face.
The pizza had an extremely crispy bottom and was properly dressed with the bare minimum of red sauce and cheese. All that stood between it and perfection were a few more yeast bubbles. Like most Houston pizzerias, Ponzo's has to use an underproofed dough to accommodate all the garbage most people pile on their pies. The authentically Neapolitan style of light toppings here really deserves a breadier crust. Not that I'm complaining. Ponzo's pizza is on a par with what you'd get in many New York pizzerias. And that's saying a lot.
On my second visit, I got a meatball sub, a sausage-and-pepper sub and a slice of cheese pizza to go. When I got home, I lined them all up and started eating. First I tried the cheese slice, which was still crispy after 15 minutes in the car.
Next, I tried the oven-baked sausage-and-pepper sub. I was still standing up, and I had to sit down. Not only did the garlic and fennel perfume of that fabulous Italian sausage send me reeling, the bell pepper slivers had been simmered in olive oil until they were slippery enough to slide out of the crusty roll as I ate. I needed the table both to brace myself and to catch the peppers before they could hit the floor. In New England, they slit the sausage on a sub lengthwise. The whole uncut link is more difficult to handle, but when the sausage is this good, I'm willing to work with it.
Ponzo's meatball sub was baked, so it was soft and gooey inside and crusty outside. I wish they started out with better bread, and the red sauce could stand to be a little spicier, but these are mere quibbles when you compare Ponzo's hot meatball sub to the microwaved version they serve at Jersey Mike's.
Jersey Mike's Original, the cold Italian sub sandwich served at the chain's new outlet on Kirby, includes provolone cheese, boiled ham, pepper ham, cappacola, hard salami and pepperoni on an Italian roll baked fresh daily from frozen dough. I ordered it "Mike's way," adding thinly sliced raw onions, lettuce, tomatoes and a vinegar-and-oil dressing. The taste of the chain's signature sandwich is hard to beat.
Jersey Mike's started out on the New Jersey Shore. But the 250-store franchise now bears less resemblance to a typical New Jersey Italian sub shop than to a Subway outlet, and that's no accident.
Sandwich shops are the hottest category in the fast food industry at the moment. There are now more Subways in the United States than McDonald's. I asked Jersey Mike's corporate sandwich trainer, Dave Altmann, to explain the growing appeal of the sub. "People are looking for an alternative to the hamburger, a fresher, healthier product," he said. "Subway led the industry in making subs popular. And hopefully [Jersey Mike's] can take the sandwich even further." There's more variety in a sandwich shop than a hamburger stand. And watching their sandwich being made in front of them gives customers a good feeling about freshness, the corporate sandwich maker explained.
At the new Kirby store, Jersey Mike's first venture into the Texas market, I order an Original and a hot meatball sandwich. They offer my favorite Italian sub, sausage and peppers, at other locations but not here in Houston, Altmann told me.
The meatballs at Jersey Mike's are excellent; large and well seasoned, they're cut into slices and coated with red sauce before being placed on a freshly baked sub roll and topped with cheese. So far, so good. But the last step in making this sandwich is not done in front of you: The sandwich maker goes around back and puts it in the microwave.
Microwaving a meatball sandwich has got to be a felony in New Jersey. Baking meatball subs gives them their characteristic crusty exterior and warm, sauce-softened, melted-cheese interior. You might say, "Oh, well, it's just a little sandwich shop, what do you expect?" And I would reply: "Had a Vietnamese sandwich lately?" Imagine how long a Vietnamese sandwich shop that microwaved its bread would last in this city. Every little banh mi thit stand in town has got a serious toaster oven. So what's up with Jersey Mike's? Do these wise guys think we Texas rubes aren't going to notice the rubbery bread?
Great Italian sub sandwiches have been hard to find in Houston, so it's amazing that two shops serving them have opened here in the last few months. There are major differences between the restaurants, of course: Jersey Mike's is really more of an Italian-flavored Subway than anything else, and Ponzo's is essentially a pizza takeout-and-delivery joint. Still, the cold sandwiches were quite similar, so one Tuesday at lunchtime, I decided to do a side-by-side submarine comparison.
I got a Jersey Mike's Original and a Ponzo's Original to go and brought them home for a thorough examination. The Jersey Mike's Original was much fatter, thanks in large part to more lettuce and lots of onions, but it also seemed to have a little more meat. The Ponzo's Original was crustier, owing to a few minutes in the pizza oven, but it was kind of skinny; they forgot to put the advertised tomato on the one I got, and the lettuce shavings were barely noticeable. I took a bite of each and savored them awhile. The Jersey Mike's Original was saltier because of the several varieties of ham. And the Ponzo's Original was slicker with the fatty bologna flavor of mortadella. It was close, but surprisingly, the franchise sub won out.
Maybe the shock of finding a decent sandwich in a fast food outlet psychologically improved the flavor. On the other hand, maybe the seductive aromas of garlicky red sauce, sizzling cheese pizzas and sausage and peppers at Ponzo's ruined my appreciation for cold cuts.
I'll stick with the sausage-and-peppers and the hot meatball sandwiches at Ponzo's from now on, and go to Jersey Mike's for my cold Italian subs. And I'll also try to remember to be grateful while I'm eating them. A few months ago, I could never have guessed that Houstonians would have the luxury of such hairsplitting over submarines.
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