The history of the hero sandwich is long and colorful … and may just begin in Hell’s Kitchen

In looking up the origins of the word hero, I found two points that piqued my interest. One: that the word may in fact predate the Greek language; and the other – and this came as no surprise – that it always somehow referenced men. 

Michael Muñoz with his Manganaro’s Hero. Photo: Kristin Camping.

I don’t know about you, but ancient languages and the people who decipher them have always fascinated me. The fact that this one word from so long ago carries so much value, and that we’ve come so far that it can now encompass more than just muscular men in little clothing (although there is nothing wrong with that picture in my mind), is pretty incredible.  

When tasked to write about a hero, it sparked a curiosity in my head about how words evolve and how one word can carry so much weight – or even have multiple meanings. With my curiosity piqued and my notepad in hand, I set out into the neighborhood to find out the makings of a great hero, and where to perhaps find one.

Let’s start with the makings of a great hero. In my mind, they have to be modest yet with presence, undeniably sturdy, well-rounded. And it wouldn’t hurt if they excelled in the looks department. All a true hero needs is some good-quality meat, even better bread, a smattering of a vegetable or two, and a good sauce. (I couldn’t be your go-to neighborhood food guy if I sat here and didn’t pay homage to a most delicious sandwich as part of the “hero” issue!) 

Much like the word itself and it’s slightly vague etymology, the hero refers to a large, cylindrical sandwich and has a few contrasting origin stories. Some sources will tell you it has Greek roots, as it originated from the Greek gyro (pronounced yeero). The gyro didn’t become popular in America until the 1960s in Chicago, but the hero sandwich was already popular among Navy men, Italian shipyard workers, and the poor Italian communities who “subsisted on deli scraps of cheese, meats, and bread” well before that. Two things that seem to be consistent across the board are that the word hero, as it refers to a sandwich, is uniquely from New York and has Italian roots, no matter whether it’s called a grinder, sub, hoagie, or hero. 

You never know when you’ll stumble on a hero, or be saved by a sandwich. Either way, there’s one to be found around every corner.

As I traveled down a dark hole of sandwich history, I found that the name and even the sandwich itself may have roots associated with Manganaro’s Hero-Boy, right here in our slice of Manhattan heaven (9th Ave – 37th/38th St). Manganaro’s has been a neighborhood staple since 1893. Once an Italian deli and grocery, it expanded into a full-blown sandwich shop after more family drama than the entire run of Days Of Our Lives. And it definitely has a legitimate claim as the creator of the hero sandwich. Cool, right? 

Although the original Manganaro’s deli/grocery has shuttered, HeroBoy still stands and, boy, is it worth the trip. From their original 6ft long heroes, which put them on the map in 1955 (they appeared on the original game show I’ve Got A Secret), to Italian delicacies, pasta, and more Manganaro’s is still the hero of heroes.

And when it comes to a sandwich, I’m a purist. Give me great Italian cured meats, cheese (preferably provolone), great toasty bread, some Italian dressing, and definitely some of the sweet and spicy vinegar peppers. I’m a boy from Brooklyn after all!

As I took my hero adventure uptown, I stumbled upon Shorty’s (9th Ave – 41st/42nd st). Some may debate me on this as Shorty’s is known for its Philly cheesesteak, which falls under the hoagie category, but are we going to be that nitpicky? It may not be from Geno’s or Pat’s, but it’s a great cheesesteak.

Next up came City Sandwich (9th Ave – 45th/46th St), a Portuguese Italian place with some awesome options that span from meat-heavy to vegetarian. The homemade bread here is a stellar standout. 

A little further up is one of my personal favorites, Vintner Wine Market (9th Ave – 46th/47th St). At first glance, you wouldn’t think this would be the place for a great hero but they source their bread from Amy’s, another neighborhood staple, and their meats and cheese selection are super high quality. They used to make a sandwich called the Godfather, which had roast beef, smoked gouda, and pickled onions – it was the thing hero dreams are made of. I’m drooling just thinking about it. 

Fresh From Hell (W47th St – 8th/9th Ave) is another great stopping point if you’re a hero aficionado and need a quick fix of fresh ingredients and great sandwiches. 

Retrace your steps to the perfect bookend of this hero quest, Sergimmo Salumeria (9th Ave – 35th/36th St). In the grand tradition that is all things Italian hero, Sergimmo offers everything from pasta to antipasto and more. We’re obviously here for the heroes or, if we want to be 2019 on-trend, panini (basically a hero smashed and thrown on a grill). They excel in the Italian sandwich vein, with 27 of the most delicious-sounding sandwiches you’ve ever seen in bold print. They even make their own mozzarella.

I guess if I can take away anything from this quest, it’s that you never know when you’ll stumble on a hero, or be saved by a sandwich. Either way, there’s one to be found around every corner. And my hero? Besides the likes of Wonder Woman and Chef Jose Andres, you’ll probably find me fainting in the arms of a meaty, cheesy footlong of deliciousness screaming: MY HERO!

This article originally appeared in W42ST Magazine’s October 2109 issue on page 40.

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