Reverse-Engineering The Secret San Francesco Sandwich
I Finally Found The Secret Ingredient! I Think
Toronto likes to think of itself as a “gentler, kinder Manhattan” when nothing could really be further from the truth. Toronto metamorphed from a stodgy old British lady in the '50s to become a sprawling megapolis of mediocrity in the 21st century. Toronto prides itself on its “world class cuisine” which translates to fifty bucks for a plate the size of an Escalade hubcap with a slice of mango, a flake of tuna and half an ounce of microgreens surrounded by a splotch of red mystery-juice. “World class suckers” would be more appropriate.
Toronto does hold some culinary delights, but they are far from the trendy Platinum American Express Card bistros of Queen Street. You have to travel well off the beaten path into the backstreets to really find some notable nosh.
And it can be argued that nowhere is really more off the beaten path and hidden in a back street than the original San Francesco Sandwich Shop. Turn off the once-Italian, then-Portuguese and now Chinese College Street onto a tiny side street named Clinton and if you look carefully along the cruddy pre-war economy rowhouses, you'll see a tiny take-out joint where the main floor of a house should be. You've just reached the apex of Italian-Canadian cuisine. San Francesco.
Elbow your way into the five foot by five foot area in front of the counter, hand the unshaven Italian dude a Canadian fiver and make your selection. Avoid all but the Meatball and Breaded Veal Cutlet, and don't choose anything but Medium-Spicy or Hot. Start salivating as within a couple of minutes, you'll be brusquely handed a steaming lump wrapped in paper. Run to your car to avoid Toronto's schismatic Arctic/Tropical weather and prepare your tastebuds for a paroxysm of ecstasy.
The Italian kaiser-type bun is the size of a teapot and crusty-fresh. Inside lies a sea of pungent, garlicky tomato sauce and within it swims a heaping helping of the meat of your choice amidst flopping slices of spicy marinated peppers. Despite the hefty size, it will swiftly disappear down your gullet, leaving you to wonder whether your diet could handle a second helping.
I've had these Calabrian-Pugliese-style meat, pepper and tomato sandwiches throughout Calabria and Puglia, but I've never come across anything that compares to San Francesco's recipe. There is a savouriness to the sauce, a specific heat to the peppers, a twist to the meatball filler, and a golden breading around the pounded veal that simply defies description.
Not being able to bribe the hairy Italian dude for the secrets, I decided I was going to reverse-engineer the sandwich. I purchased a dozen of them (for the strict purposes of scientific culinary research, of course) and rushed back to my mad scientist kitchen-lab.
I opened eight different types of canned marinated peppers until I found one that seemed to fit. Surprisingly it was the Manolito Fired Roasted Green Chili Verde Asado. I'm sure that San Francesco doesn't use a Mexican ingredient, but it was close enough for me.
I got fairly close to the meatball filler with a day-old bread crumb, a bit of olive oil, some water and dried oregano, basil and parsley. I used Panko bread crumbs, milk and egg for the veal cutlet which I'm sure was another heresy as Panko is Japanese, but it gave me a pretty close result, so I went for it.
The problem was the sauce. I tried every tomatoey combination I could think of and nothing. It all either tasted of pasta or pizza sauce. I was just about to give up in tears of frustration when I took the hundreth bite of the sample sandwiches (which were now largely gone) and tasted a bit of specific texture. The sandwiches were now well at room temperature, so the consistency had changed, and I finally recognized it: Lard!
Now you would think that the last thing you want in your sandwich is congealed pork fat, but adding that to a very basic tomato sauce was just the ticket. Suddenly the sauce took on that intoxicating savouriness that only San Francesco has. I don't know for certain whether they use lard or not, but I can assure you that I got my sauce to within 99% of being a perfect San Francesco clone.
Try this sandwich. Even if you will never set foot in Toronto (and who could blame you), you'll discover a satisfying, almost sinful treat that's completely unforgettable.
San Francesco has opened up outlets all over Southern Ontario and they are all best avoided. None of them serve the Clinton St. recipe and just sell slop on a bun. If you want the real San Francesco sandwich, you have no choice but to go to the original San Francesco. Or make your own! Buon Appetito!