City Island, the cozy maritime community located off the the eastern shore of the Bronx, is perhaps best known as a day-trip destination for pavement-weary New Yorkers looking for a quick seaside escape. Most guides to the island suggest the same itinerary for first-time visitors: wander around the docks, take a stroll past the antique shops on the main avenue, and settle in for a meal of fried seafood at one of the island's many restaurants. But truth be told, most of those eateries are best enjoyed for the scenery rather than the food itself, which is, generally speaking, heavy on the kitsch and on the wallet.
I'm guessing that City Island locals looking to skip the nautically-themed fare head to Papa John's Deli instead. The breakfast and lunchtime spot features a list of 42 sandwiches (plus wraps, burgers, and more), with many named after the regulars who order them. Owner Steve Cottrell, who mans the counter with an endearing mix of cheer and sass, began immortalizing his customers in sandwich form soon after taking over the deli 14 years ago (Papa John, for anyone wondering, is his grandfather's name).
Cottrell's devotion to the people that pass through his door also seems to spill over into his sandwich making skills. Although the ingredients he uses are nothing out of the ordinary, his well-structured creations show just how much he understands about the secret engineering tricks of great sandwiches.
Take the McMan ($7.50), named for a retired sanitation worker, which comes with bacon, mayonnaise, and American cheese seemingly weaved together into a melty blanket on top of a breaded chicken cutlet. All the ingredients are pressed between a whole wheat hero, which is tender, sleek, and lightly crispy. It's totally familiar but so proportioned that I couldn't help but be excited on my first bite.
The Pastore combo ($7.75), which bears the name of City Island resident Vincent Pastore (best known for his roll as Big Pussy on the Sopranos), shows off Cottrell's cold sandwich technique. Notice how the fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, and thick wad of prosciutto are practically rolled into the bread, which makes for a rotund cylinder in which each of the ingredients snugly hug one another. It's the perfect shape for enjoying all of the flavors at once without having them slip and slide, as each of those ingredients is often wont to do.
Papa John's Deli may not offer up the sort of food that comes with a bib and a side of tartar sauce, but it nevertheless is an exceptional example of the idiosyncratic charm that brings visitors to City Island in the first place. Should you find yourself out there and looking for a satisfying and affordable bite to eat, consider bypassing all the places with neon lobster signs out front in favor of this small gem a sandwich shop where the local culture is inscribed right into the menu.