Chow Town

An Italian sandwich good enough to stop time

The Capacola Hero at Marco Polo’s Italian Market is a perfect blend of crusty bread and savory meat topped with lettuce, onion, tomatoes, Provolone and Italian dressing.
The Capacola Hero at Marco Polo’s Italian Market is a perfect blend of crusty bread and savory meat topped with lettuce, onion, tomatoes, Provolone and Italian dressing. Special to The Star

Memories accumulate over a lifetime. Sometimes those memories are a connection to a place, to a career, to a romance or a love lost. Sometimes a mix of bittersweetness.

There was this time when I lived in New York City, late 1970s, early ’80s. Disco was dying. The Son of Sam murders had everyone on edge. Everything was gray, black and gritty … the streets, sidewalks, storefronts, park benches. Your clothes would get dirty just by rubbing against a subway railing. It seemed like you couldn’t get away from the filth.

And yet, amid the grime, there was excitement. I was really just a kid, a teenager, getting in on the ground floor of digital recording technology. I was working in one of the largest recording studios in New York City, the Hit Factory. At that young age, I had the chance to work closely with some of the top recording artists of the day: Mick Jagger, John Lennon, Paul Simon, Billy Joel, Daryl Hall, John Oates, Lou Rawls and more.

At a distance, it looked like I was living the glamorous life. Sure, I could walk into almost any top music venue and my name was on the list. However, trying to afford New York City rents on my meager salary always left me broke. And I mean ALWAYS. Sometimes I survived only on yogurt or canned tuna for meals. Sometimes I just didn’t eat for days.

When I did have a small amount of money, occasionally I would visit one of the delis near my apartment in SoHo (before SoHo was cool) for some “real food.” Usually that meant some sort of huge hoagie or hero sandwich adorned with Italian charcuterie. Back then, those treat days were few and very far between.

Why do I bring this up?

Recently, I was at Marco Polo’s Italian Market for lunch (1201 W. 103rd St. in the Watts Mill shopping center). When I go there, I might get a slice of pizza and some sort of pasta, or maybe the chicken Parmesan. This time I couldn’t make up my mind. The girl at the counter mentioned that I might like to try the Capacola Hero. That sounded fine to me. “It’s just a sandwich,” I was thinking to myself. No big deal, right?

When the Capacola Hero arrived, the first thing I noticed was the bread: hard Italian bread with sesame seeds (made by Farm to Market Bread Co.). I took a bite, and immediately my mind shot back to that time when I was that poor, long-haired teenager, living in New York City with saved-up pocket change for a sandwich at the deli near my tiny SoHo apartment.

I haven’t had bread like this recently. It’s hard, crusty and FLAVORFUL, with almost a sourdough taste. Personally, I think this is what’s missing in a lot of bread now: flavor. Many breads today are nothing more than soft, pillowy, tasteless canvases of blah. I just don’t enjoy that. Bread is often the backbone of a great sandwich.

But back to the hero. There are so many things that I love about it. The crunch of the lettuce. The bite of the onions. The sweet tanginess of the Italian dressing. Of course, the quality of the sweet and spicy cured capacola, topped with Provolone and tomatoes.

Where has this sandwich been hiding? According to fellow Chow Town blogger and chef Jasper Mirabile, who owns Marco Polo’s, “We used to have the Capacola Hero as a daily special, but we took it off the menu a while back. However, we have so many regulars that love it, we still make the sandwich if someone orders it.” Ahhhh, you have to order from the “secret menu” if you want this. I recommend doing just that.

I’ve written about food and memories before, and each bite of this Capacola Hero brought back a flood of those old New York City memories: Tromping through the cluttered sidewalks to work and school … endless honking cars … grime and pollution … then the thrill of finally getting to eat some good food, like this sandwich.

Yeah, there isn’t much from the early 1980s New York City that I really miss. Instead, I focus on the delicious details in front of me — the spice of the meat, the play of flavors, that amazing bread — and then it hits me. Yes, there is something that I really liked about that time in my life: My 31-inch waist. I glance down and I’m reminded that the ’80s were a long time ago. Probably time to close my eyes again and just enjoy the rest of this sandwich.

Maybe you won’t take a trip down memory lane like I do when I eat the Capacola Hero at Marco Polo’s, but I tell you what. You need to give this sandwich a try and create your own memories. Go ahead and order it, even though it’s not on the menu. It’s OK. It’s worth giving up your 31-inch waist, too.

Bon Appétit!

Craig Jones is a live-fire cooking expert, the Grill Mayor for Food Network (2012), and owner of Savory Addictions Gourmet Nuts. He’s also a certified KCBS barbecue judge, a student of pizza crafting and an enthusiastic supporter of the greater Kansas City food scene.