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Reverse-Engineering The Secret San Francesco Sandwich

Updated on March 20, 2011

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.

A hot, sloppy, overfilled bite of heaven.
A hot, sloppy, overfilled bite of heaven.
There are lots of San Francesco outlets. But only the tiny original converted house serves the proper recipe.
There are lots of San Francesco outlets. But only the tiny original converted house serves the proper recipe.

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!


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    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I lived in T.O from 1992-2003.For the most part it wasn't that bad, it’s not the cleanest city I lived in and not the friendliest. Ass for the food, well u can't say it’s bad or u have to pay 50bucks to get a good meal. U can't just step into a restraint or hole in the wall and expect good food. Just because they're selling it, doesn’t mean it’s good! Cooking is an art and not every one can draw. There's not too many Cities in this world where every place u go to eat is excellent. I got to say when I did live in Toronto I loved to grab a veal at San Francesco's or California’s. If u do a little research, like this u'll find all kinds of places in T.O that r excellent places to eat.

    • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

      Hal Licino 

      8 years ago from Toronto

      I spent about a third of my entire life in TO and allow me to tell you that it was a PHENOMENAL city in the Sixties. It was gorgeous, civil, ultra clean, friendly, and completely BRITISH. (Can't hit me for racism, I'm Italian...) TO today is a a giant overgrown concrete tumour which should be excised from the skin of a magnificent province.

    • profile image

      Sean Yates 

      8 years ago

      this post just sounds angry, I eat at various san frans around southern ontario and they're great. Plus T.O is a diverse city, in regards to opinions, cuisine, and culture so your trivialization of everything that makes up this great city is kind of concerning, on the other hand I understand the need for a reviewer to shit on everything they come across so I guess just take it for what it is.

    • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

      Hal Licino 

      8 years ago from Toronto

      You lost me there dude. I haven't lived in T.O. for almost two decades, regardless of what my profile says... it's there for a reason. And you're criticizing me for saying exactly what you're saying. What exactly ARE you trying to say? However, we agree that the sandwich is great! :)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Well, first I suggest you move. I am a homesick Torontonian, and all the cool kids hate Toronto. Get off it already. Frankly, world class cuisine hunters should be trawling diners at the North end of Bathurst, Attics of obscure shopping centres or - indeed - holes in the wall on Clinton Street or backroad Christie Pits BBQ joints and not ponying up 50 bucks a plate for "Gourment fusion" or gastro-pub fare. It's world class only in the sense that it's the same everywhere you go: over-priced and underwhelming. New York is no different. But thanks for the recipe tips - San Francesco's was the best sandwich going. X-Ray's Hot Pig came a close second.

    • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

      Hal Licino 

      9 years ago from Toronto

      Sorry, tabi. I lived in T.O. for almost twenty years, and I'm firm in my belief that it's a frostbitten wannabe Manhattan that fails on almost every count as shamefully inferior and utterly bush league. It's a miserable excuse for a world capital with almost no redeeming features: A scar on a truly beautiful country. BOO T.O. :)

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      I like the review, interesting break down of the sandwich BUT, I've got to call you out on the " Even if you will never set foot in Toronto (and who could blame you)" and “World class suckers” You are dead wrong. There are lots of culinary treasures in Toronto and it's a fantastic place to live. After visiting many other countries I've never been to a place where I can get a delicious Italian sandwich, then go next door and get a fantastic Jewish Deli style smoked meat sandwich, or how about going north and east one intersection and getting fantastic Japanese!? We DO have “world class cuisine”, plus we have it from all over the world which is pretty unique.

    • profile image


      10 years ago


      Thanks! Couldn't believe it when I found your reverse recipe ... fond memory (as in only once) when my brother (home from the navy) took me to this special place with these terrific sandwiches ... it was dark and late and he always had a knack for knowing these special places ... thought I'd never find it again. Thanks again. Elizabeth

    • Hal Licino profile imageAUTHOR

      Hal Licino 

      11 years ago from Toronto

      me·gap·o·lis(m-gp-ls, m-)n.Variant of megalopolis. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition

      And I would appreciate a clarification as to the franchise dating, as the last time I visited one was exactly one year, 4 months and two weeks ago, hardly ten years. But of course, since you're calling me a liar from the get go... bring it on! :P

    • profile image


      11 years ago

      This is a sad post. Hey, it's spelled 'megalopolis', and your info on San Francesco and its franchises is about 10 years out of date. Thanks for adding your irrelevant and useless blanket statements to that segment of internet writing labelled "trash".


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