'Grinder is King': take the tour

On any given lunch hour, many of us chomp into Italian or eggplant parmesan grinders without giving much thought to the history of these quintessentially New England sandwiches.

But grinder enthusiasts like Phil Ramos, owner of Terrace Bakery in New London, are well aware of the grinder's genesis, which they say is a distinctly New London story.

"The grinder word was originally from New London," Ramos said inside his Jefferson Avenue bakery and grinder shop recently.

The meaning behind the actual word is simple.

"Because when you bite it, this is what you do," Ramos said mashing his teeth. "You grind it."

Barbara Neff, the organizer of Saturday's "Grinder is King Festival" in New London, agrees, but she says there's more to the story.

The grinder's creation dates back to before World War II, when Benedetto Capaldo, an Italian immigrant and owner of the New York Fruit Market in New London, asked a local baker to make a 12-inch roll to use in a sandwich to market to his male clientele, Neff said.

The first grinders were made with salami, chopped lettuce and Gemma olive oil, a mix of 25 percent canola oil and 75 percent virgin olive oil.

Capaldo, born in 1890, later sold his business to his younger cousin, Rosalie Santangelo, and her husband, Tony Ferrante. During Saturday's festival at Custom House Pier, Mayor Daryl J. Finizio and state Rep. Ernest Hewett will present state and city proclamations to Rosalie and Tony's son, Andrew Ferrante, recognizing his family's contribution to culinary history.

But when it comes to the grinder creation myth there may be one fly in the ointment. Internet searches for the origin of the term "grinder" end in inconclusive results.

The Online Etymology Dictionary defines grinder this way: "Large sandwich ? though the exact signification is uncertain."

One poster on Google credits the grinder's origin to New Bedford, Mass., suggesting the name came from the workers who ground iron pegs and bought overstuffed sandwiches from Italian immigrants.

But phone messages and emails to the New Bedford Historical Society, Economic Development Corporation and Standard-Times newspaper produced no calls to throw New Bedford into contention as the birth place of the grinder. (Although, an official in the mayor's office there said a New Bedford-born famous gambler named Richard Canfield is credited with inventing the club sandwich.)

Regardless of whether another city comes forward, Neff said she is prepared for any would-be challengers.

"I'm ready to put up a fight to say it's New London," she said.

At the "Grinder is King Festival," attendees will be able to taste samples from participating grinder shops and cast votes for the festival winner.

In anticipation of the festival, I took a few days to try out several grinder shops in the area. Here are the results of that expedition.

Day one, Terrace Bakery in New London: Under new ownership for the last two years, Terrace Bakery still bakes its grinder bread fresh every morning. I tried the eggplant parmesan. It was a traditional, delicious, well-executed sandwich with fried eggplant, tomato sauce and provolone cheese.

Day two, Carlo and Son Quality Meats in East Lyme: One of the highlights of Carlo and Son is the chewy grinder bread shipped in from the Bronx. On my visit, I tried the corned beef grinder, which came with the meat piled high and provolone cheese, shaved lettuce, onion and tomato on top. The bread separates Carlo and Son from competitors and is my pick for the best grinder in the area.

Day three: Franklin Giant Grinders in Hartford: The grinder may have been invented in New London but many in Hartford would argue it was perfected at the city's Franklin Giant Grinders, a legendary 48-year-old grinder shop. We tried the sausage and peppers grinder, and the provolone cheese grinder. I hadn't been there since I was a kid, but after my recent trip I have to say Franklin Giant Grinders is as good as I remember.

Day four: Pasta Fresca in Mystic: A no-frills kind of grinder place, this small shop off Route 1 focuses on the knitty-gritty of grinder making. I tried the over-stuffed chicken salad grinder with provolone, lettuce, tomato and black pepper. Pasta Fresca seems to be a favorite among construction workers on lunch break. After finishing my oversized grinder, I can see why.

Day five: Hamilton Street Market in New London: Of the recommendations I received from readers, a good number of them suggested I try Hamilton Street Market in New London. On my visit, I learned it's a quaint, unassuming place. It struck me as the "Cheers" of grinder shops, where everyone knows your name. I had the tuna grinder, which was everything you would look for: moist but without overdoing it on the mayonnaise, a liberal serving of tuna and fresh lettuce, tomato and provolone cheese on top.

Participants: Captains Pizza, Covino, Giuliano's, Muddy Waters, Oceanside Deli, Terrace Bakery, Hamilton Street Market, and Italian cookies by Sherry LLC.

IF YOU GO

What: Grinder is King Festival

Where: New London Waterfront Park

When: Noon to 5 p.m. Saturday

Cost: $5 per grinder

Participants: Captain’s Pizza, Covino,
Giuliano’s, Muddy Waters, Oceanside Deli, Terrace Bakery, Hamilton Street Market, and Italian Cookies by Sherry LLC.

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