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Left to right: Parisi Bakery, Parm, Italian Food Center, and Alleva dairy. [Photographs: Robyn Lee]

What's the greatest icon of Italian American cuisine in New York?

Pizza's so beloved it's gotten a culinary green card. Pasta and meatballs? You could make a case for it, but you could make the same case for it anywhere in the U.S. that you'll find Italians.

No, if I were to name an ambassador of New York's Italian American food culture, it'd be the hero. It's a gutbusting, cheap, and portable working lunch for a city on the move, and you can fill it with anything, from chicken parm to broccoli rabe to ham and salami, a form as diverse and colorful as New York's Italian community. And if we're talking about the hero's connection to the city, I think Ed said it best in his 2003 New York Times article on the sandwich:

We are a city of heroes. The rest of the country may clamor for po' boys and hoagies, grinders, subs, wedges or torpedoes, but New York knows what really constitutes a gigantic sandwich, and what raises the hero above those pretenders; what makes it gastronomic royalty.

Now the hero comes in countless forms, but when you're talking about deli sandwiches, nothing beats the Italian combo, a mix of cured meats with cheese, some combination of lettuce, peppers, and, tomato, and an oil-vinegar dressing. The meats are typically Genoa salami, prosciutto, and capicola; the cheese is most often provolone.

The Serious Eats office is dead in the thick of New York's Italian American culture—at least what used to be. It's no secret to anyone who calls New York home that today's Little Italy is as Italian as Mario the plumber. But still, with the thousands of tourists that pass through daily, you'd expect some places to do the Italian combo justice.

By our count there are four sandwich shops to get a classic hero in Little Italy. Two are new school—Parm and the resurrected Italian Food Center—and two are as old school as they come—Parisi Bakery and the century-old Alleva dairy. Prices ranged from $8.50 to $12, with sizes from gargantuan to dainty. Our thoughts in the full rundown below.

The Narrow Winner: Italian Food Center ($10)

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A little history: the Italian Food Center used to be one of Little Italy's last old school delis until it closed a couple years ago. What's emerged in its place is new in all but the name: a cavernous, industrial-ish restaurant clearly aimed at tourists, with sandwiches, pizza, and pasta on the menu.

But we're quite happy with the sandwiches, and this is no exception. There's plenty of meat, thinly sliced, the porkiest in our tasting. Iceberg lettuce comes finely shredded—is there any better lettuce for a sandwich, and any better way to prep it?

The inclusion of a sneaky but assertive pepper jam is what won us over in the end, an unorthodox but smart addition to the sandwich's fruity, tangy, and meaty flavors. That and the price tag: we ranked this one very closely to its runner up, but at $2 less for a comparably sized filling-but-not-huge sandwich, it inches ahead to a photo finish.

The Close Second: Parm ($12)

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Parm's Italian combo runs a close second, and were it a couple bucks cheaper you could call it an even race. It hits every element of a classic Italian combo: excellent ham, mortadella, and soppressata, all paper-thin; crunchy lettuce and ripe-ish tomato; sesame seed-topped hero with a nice toastiness (probably the best bread of our tasting); a whisp of oil and vinegar. It's a balanced sandwich, not too heavy despite its ample stuffing. Hey, tired of us talking up Parm? When other Italian sandwich shops pay the same attention to ingredient quality and proportions, we will.

The Surprise Success: Alleva ($8.50)

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Alleva's sandwich was the largest and cheapest in our tasting. But it looks plain wrong: thick, unwieldy clumps of meat, an absence of vegetables save a couple strips of pickled red pepper, and a slip of balsamic vinegar that soaks right into the bread. It looks unimpressive, but we were surprised at how often we came back to it. Though thinly sliced meats make for an easier to eat sandwich, the chewy thick slices of salami here gave a pleasant resistance to the teeth, and the hero bread, though standard, holds up to its fillings well. The meager peppers and balsamic add more brightness than you expect, enough to keep this monster of a sandwich relatively interesting from start to finish. Though we'd be hard pressed to finish one by ourselves.

The Flunk: Parisi Bakery ($10)

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We're big fans of Parisi for their great bread, filling sandwiches, and oh-so-New-York attitude (I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when a group of 20 Mormon tourists walked in for lunch). But this sandwich left us wanting. It took a couple tries to even get an Italian combo; our first attempt resulted in some cured meat and fresh mozzarella on bread, unadorned. When we finally made our requests clear, we got sloppy slices of meat, whole leaves of lettuce, and fat tails of red pepper with a sweet brine that decked out every flavor it came across.

What's Your Favorite?

We've just scratched the surface on the world of New York's Italian combos, and no doubt the going gets even better the farther you get from Mulberry Street. So tell us: where's your favorite Italian combo in New York?

About the author: Max Falkowitz is the editor of Serious Eats: New York. You can follow him on Twitter at @maxfalkowitz.

related venues
Italian Food Center 161 Mulbery St, New York, NY
Parm 248 Mulberry St, New York, NY
Parisi Bakery Delicatessen 198 Mott St, New York, NY
Alleva 188 Grand St, New York, NY
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