A big time to be had at Hartford Giant Grinder

It's not often a 57-year-old man walks into the Book Barn Mid-Town location in Niantic and asks to borrow 12 Hardy Boys books. That's what happened, though. No point in trying to explain why, but I'll say this: I'd forgotten what a nail-biter "The Flickering Torch Mystery" really is.

Equally important is that, exiting the Mid-Town parking lot onto Hope Street, I drove past a small shopfront with a sign that said Hartford Giant Grinder.

In New England, where many such culinary disciplines like Cajun and barbecue are in criminally short supply, one learns to appreciate the good stuff that IS available - and, yes, that would include grinders.

Maybe it was just the smothering presence of so many Hardy Boys books in the car, but, like Frank and Joe, even the slightest perception that something is slightly off might betoken a new adventure!

To wit: if the sandwich shop is in Niantic, why does it promise "Hartford" grinders? And: define "giant," please. Countless hungry customers across the world have been saddened by food people who promise "giant" this or "super-size" that - only to receive meals that, if truth-in-advertising was in fact a guiding life principle, would claim "medium-sized" or "sorta small, actually."

Let me solve one mystery outright.

Yes: these are extremely large grinders. Or, perhaps more accurately, since they come in various sizes, on sandwich rolls and eight-inch and 16-inch loaves, they're "stuffed" grinders. As in, there's a lot of whatever you order between those two halves of chewy, fresh Italian bread.

One point worth noting: the beef and various turkey options are roasted on site - and you can taste the difference.

A roast beef grinder with Swiss, lettuce, black olives, tomatoes, banana peppers and oil - other toppings include hot pepper flakes, roasted red peppers, jalapenos and a variety of cheeses and house-generated dressings - is an architectural marvel. Heaped on the bottom half of the bread is a thick layer of the lean, thin-sliced, tender, flavorful beef. The toppings are applied next, then ANOTHER lamination of roast beef and, finally, the top section of bread.

It's one of those constructs where you need a tire-jack to get your jaws sufficiently open to actually bite into it. Ha!

Turns out, all of the Hartford grinders are built to these specifications so, yes, I'm going to say they are indeed giant.

A lot of folks suggest that the manner in which any grinder shop makes an Italian grinder determines their authenticity. It's a valid point - sort of. Research indicates, though, that there seems to be a lot of discourse amongst varying loyalists as to what exactly comprises an Italian grinder. Ham and Genoa salami seem to be essential, along with oil, lettuce, tomato and pepper - but is Capicola the third of the holy-meat-trinity or just an attractive addendum?

I don't feel I've lived in New England long enough to chime in, although either seems to be fun. At Hartford Giant Grinder, their Italian leaves off the Capicola (although you can add it for an additional buck). I went with their basic recipe and it's pretty wonderful.

There's a slight and compelling variation on the design. While the vegetable and spice toppings are still dead-center in the middle of the sandwich, surrounded by the parenthetical clumps of meat, the ham occupies one side exclusively and the salami is on the other side. This creates a tremendous taste-bud assault as your teeth sink through the sandwich and, depending on how you're holding it, the tongue first experiences the Genoa and then the ham - or vice versa. This is fun.

A toasted eggplant grinder was also well received by my wife. For one thing, there was more eggplant than bread - a nice reversal from the norm. And while the eggplant wasn't as thinly sliced as she prefers, causing worries that it might be tough, her fears were unfounded.

The tart marinara sauce was applied with a light hand, so the eggplant was - rightfully - the main flavor element, and the Provolone was perfectly melted so the edges were a little crispy. Oh, and while it was an eight-inch version, she had more than enough for two meals.

A BBQ turkey grinder was very good - and, again, you can tell the bird is roasted on site. Tasted like Thanksgiving was yesterday. It's true that there was no particular resonance that screamed "barbecue," but a dash of Crystal hot sauce from my own 'fridge added the flavor I sought. If I'd just asked for a plain turkey, the Hartford Grinder version would have been more than fine.

Oh: as to why it's called "Hartford Giant Grinder"? I'm still not sure. No worries, though: I called Frank and Joe Hardy. They'll figure it out.

Hartford Giant Grinder

8 Hope St., Niantic
(860) 739-3181

Cuisine: Classic New England-style grinders, with a selection of breakfast sandwiches, salads and a daily soup.

Atmosphere: Sparse. It's essentially a take-out joint, although there are three roomy booths if you feel like eating in.

Service: Employees share counter duty as well as sandwich crafting. They're incredibly polite, eager-to-please and seem genuinely appreciative of the business. It also seems like a lot of the customers are regulars.

Prices: Wraps and hard roll sandwiches $4.25-$5.75, eight-inch "half" grinders $5-$8, 16-inch "whole" grinders $7.75-$14.50, salads $5.10-$7.25, New England clam chowder $3.75.

Handicap access: Easy from parking lot; it's a small place, though, in terms of wheelchair maneuverability.

Credit cards: All majors.

Reservations: N/A. Call ahead suggested for large or to-go orders.

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