Friday, July 30, 2010

Grinder sandwiches at Viva L’Italia: A Review

Mmm. I'm in heaven right now cos' I'm chowing down on some Gorgonzola-stuffed olives that I just purchased from Lucca's stand at Viva L’Italia on the Court Ave. Bridge, downtown Des Moines. The festival started today at 11 am and runs through to 2 am tonight. Tomorrow, activity picks back up at 10 am and runs its course 2 am early Sunday morning.

Looking at the list of vendors participating in this year's festival, I spotted Campbell's of Iowa State Fair fame. Back in my youth, Campbell's operated a grinder joint on the east side, first on Hubbell just north of Easton, then finally up around Hubbell and E. 37th.

What I remember of their grinder was that it a dry sandwich, in that the meat wasn't simmered in a marinara, and the banana peppers they used for garnish. It's a unique taste and texture that I've not found since they closed up shop many years ago.

Last year I went to the Iowa State Fair looking for a Campbell's grinder, but sadly none of their concessions offered the sandwich. Instead I went for a Gizmo, a saucier, more traditional version of what people would think of as a grinder. It was a very good grinder, but it wasn't what I was looking for.

So with high hopes and a semi-empty stomach I strolled over to the Campbell's stand at Festa Italiana only to find corn dogs on the menu. What's Italian about a corn dog?!?!

Slightly pissed I scoped the scene and found only two vendors offering grinders, Baratta's and Scornovacca's.

I spotted the grinder at Baratta's first and dropped a fiver for their tasty sandwich. First they split a nice Italian hoagie bun, likely Rotella's, and spooned in the meat mixture from a big cooker. When compared to Scornovacca's, this was to be an important step.

No melted cheese atop Baratta's grinder, but none was needed, and likely would have been a distraction. The meat filling was saucy and very well spiced. My thoughts turned to my departed pal and gourmand, Jeff Kirch. He would have liked this sandwich for the bold flavors and the freshness of the bread. By freshness I mean that it had a nice dry chew, not laden down with moisture from exposure to the hot, moist filling. In the picture above you can see the fennel seed and chopped green bell pepper in the mixture.
Perhaps a little too spicy for some. But for that lone critique, I say this grinder rates highly for flavor and texture. I'd eat another one anytime.

Next I sampled the six dollar grinder from Scornovacca's. Like the legendary Gizmo at the Fair, this grinder comes wrapped in foil and topped with melted mozzarella. Alas, the foil and prolonged exposure to the meat filling softens the bread with moisture. As I mentioned before, the texture of the bread can't be discounted.

It's like comparing a burrito from Bandit Burrito in Johnston to one made by El Rey in West Des Moines. The tortillas at Bandit Burrito are heated in a press for a short period, while the tortillas at El Rey go on the grill. I enjoy the fillings at both Bandit and El Rey, but the tortilla at Bandit is on the softer side while El Rey's has a drier texture that gives way as you bite in and doesn't stick to your teeth as much as Bandit's. This too also applies to the hoagie bun.

Scornovacca's meat filling was a little more saucier, but not nearly as flavorful. The cheese adds nothing to the sandwich, except for gooieness which the kids will love. More akin to a pizza, it seems that Scornovacca's is appealing to a broader crowd, who may not have a palate for things spicy.
Comparing Scornovacca's grinder to the Gizmo, the Gizmo is the better choice.

Now that I've finished the last stuffed olive, I recommend the Baratta's grinder at Viva L’Italia this weekend.
Baratta's on Urbanspoon Scornovacca's Ristorante on Urbanspoon Photos from the Picasa Web Album: Tastes of the Italian-American Heritage Festival of Iowa

No comments: