On my first trip back to New England since a six-year sojourn there in the 1980s, I wanted just two things that I’d missed: lobster and subs.
In the coastal village of Rockport, on Cape Ann, Massachusetts, Robert and I found the best lobster we’d ever eaten at the Roy Moore Lobster Company, on Bearskin Neck. We sat on the little dock out back slurping raw, briny oysters and watching a young man prepare lobster traps a few feet away while another boiled up a our own crustacean in the little restaurant-store, where lobsters waiting their turn ran angry circles in their glass tank, at eye level with the customers. When the boiled brethren were ready, the cook cracked the shells with a knife, set each lobster in a paper basket, and topped the claws with a little plastic cup of melted butter. Sweet, tender, and succulent, that lobster was as good as fresh Dungeness crab. I licked the luscious tomalley off my fingers, the shells, and the basket. A Chinese family stepped aside as the trap repairer came through pulling a big crate of lobsters just off the boat, and we scrambled to clear up our mess so the family could sit.
Nobody says “submarine sandwich” in Massachusetts, but everybody knows what a sub is. It can be filled with cold cuts and marinated vegetables—never dill pickle relish, mayonnaise, or mustard—but the ultimate sub is a hot one, stuffed with steak, sausages, or meatballs and the optional onions, peppers, and cheese. The steak is thin-sliced beef cooked fast in a heap on the griddle. A steak-and-cheese sub is sometimes called a cheesesteak, but it’s unlike any Philadelphia cheesesteak I’ve had. Instead of stringy beef in Velveeta or Cheez Whiz goo atop mushy bread, a New England sub consists of juicy meat topped with melted provolone on a loaf with substance. The onions and peppers are cooked ahead, slowly, to tender sweetness, and briefly reheated before serving.
When we lived in Massachusetts, a sausage sub with onions and peppers was sometimes called a sausage bomb. The meat was fresh pork sausage flavored with cracked black pepper and whole fennel seeds, usually in thick, juicy slices. I loved sausage subs even more than steak-and-cheeses.
In those days, we got our subs at pizza-and-sub shops. Each was unique—there were no chains—but they were all reassuringly similar. Inside you’d find a griddle, a pizza oven, plastic chairs, and Formica-topped tables. A youngish, dark-haired man ran the place; seldom did you see a second worker. You assumed the man’s parentage to be Italian. Only two things were on the menu: pizza and subs. The pizza was a thin crust topped with nothing but tomato sauce and cheese, for most customers, although optional toppings were listed on a menu on the wall. Most of the subs people ordered were hot.
Googling “best subs Boston” brings up sandwich places with too much extraneous stuff on the menu—chicken kebabs, corned beef, even “wraps.” I had to do my looking for pizza-and-sub shops out the car window. Everywhere we drove, I scanned storefronts. Finally, the day before we left for home, we spied Maria’s Pizza and Subs in the town of Beverly. The place looked right, despite a few irrelevant menu items like souvlaki and baklava. Maria and her sister, as I imagined the two look-alike women behind the counter to be, are apparently Greek. Their sausage was sliced too thin for my liking, and I couldn’t taste fennel, perhaps because it was overwhelmed by the tomato sauce spooned atop my sausage. But the steak-and-cheese sub tasted right.
On the way out of Somerville the next morning, as we headed south toward JKF Airport in New York, I spotted another pizza-and-sub sign. I wanted to stop, but we’d just eaten breakfast, and we had no time to dawdle. I can’t find that shop on the Internet. I’ll have to hunt it down on my next trip to New England.