I'm always open to any new experience that challenges my take on a culinary genre, no matter how humble. Although my first dining choice is seldom a sandwich, I've met a few in my time that totally rocked my world, which is why I ventured out to Mancino's Pizza & Baked Subs, the "Home of Caldwell's Finest Oven-Baked Sandwiches." I'd read an online review that morning that described Mancino's as a "hole in the wall." I would have to disagree. The decor was cozy and bright, and it's a mighty comfortable place to sit down for lunch after a long drive from Southeast Boise.
The young lady behind the register recommended the Philly steak or the Italian combo sub, but I decided on the BBQ Brisket. Subs come in a choice of an 8-inch or the heartier 16-inch version, served on either white or wheat Italian bread—baked on the premises—and served with chips ($5.49). I went for the upgrade ($9.99), which includes a fountain drink and a choice of a green salad, potato salad or soup. Having an Okie mother-in-law, I like to think I know a thing or two about potato salad, so my choice of side dish was a no-brainer.
I was a bit taken aback by what was set down before me on the black-and-white checked plastic tablecloth. The sandwich resembled a panini (fair enough, given the Italian identity), but the only hint of what it contained was a glimpse of BBQ sauce and melted mozzarella along the seam. While the meat was tender and the hickory sauce sweet and tangy, it just wasn't what any self-respecting fan of BBQ would call brisket—slices of flat cut beef breast, slow-cooked Texas-style. And even at the risk of seeming like a glutton, I'm a bit suspicious of any BBQ sandwich that doesn't threaten to result in a dry cleaning bill if I'm protected by anything less than a tarp. As it was, I couldn't have devoured my meal more fastidiously if I'd been eating cucumber sandwiches with the Queen Mum. That ain't right, y'all.
Seeing that the word "pizza" comes before "baked subs" in Mancino's name, I figured it would be downright churlish of me not to order a pie to take home to the missus. Exercising a prerogative earned by virtue of my place on the food chain, I ordered a 10-inch Stromboli ($10.99), which came with sausage, ham, salami, pepperoni and ground beef. And since there's no better dessert choice after a BBQ brisket sandwich than a slice of pizza, I decided my spouse would hardly begrudge me a piping hot piece before the long drive home.
Again, I was unprepared for what I got. Imagine a mozzarella glacier pouring over a doughy plain, leaving only the occasional sausage boulder visible above the white expanse. For the pizza purists who battle over the relative merits of Chicago- or New York-style pie, there's nothing to fight about here. As a genus, Mancino's pizza falls somewhere in an indefinable between, and the taste was hardly a cut above a quality brand in the supermarket freezer section.
I left Mancino's with a full tummy but an unfulfilled expectation. When a joint stakes its reputation on pizza and subs, it had better raise the culinary bar in a category that has plenty of competition. Mancino's didn't give me a good enough reason not to "roll my own" the next time I'm hankering for a sandwich and instead use the gas money saved on a jar of kosher pickles.
—Michael Boss often finds himself in a dilly of a pickle.
With the influx of people into the Treasure Valley during the last two decades, I assumed it wouldn't be long before the borders between Ada and Canyon counties would blur, housing developments and strip malls connecting Boise right to Caldwell. However, that's not yet the case and a trip to the Caldwell Mancino's Pizza & Baked Subs—with the I.T. Guy, a colleague and her husband—still takes you past miles of fields, separated by a handful of construction projects, with almost enough travel time to consider it a road trip.
Tiny Mancino's offers more food options than seating and deciding on a sub took awhile, but since the place was staffed by just one pleasant young lady, getting our food took even longer. It might have detracted from our experience had we not had so much fun reading through the "extras" on the menu.
Appetizers like mozzarella sticks and jalapeno poppers come eight each but boneless chicken wings don't have a number next to them. Tater tots are ordered in amounts of either 11 or 17, extra jalapenos are 60 cents and pepperoncinis are 25 cents each or five for $1. An order of boneless chicken wings for the kiddies comes in a half-size, but since we didn't know what constituted a full order, we were left to guess. We laughed as we wondered if they would be parceled out as oddly as the tots and a gradeschooler might find himself staring at a plate of eight and a half wings. Or, he might choose the soup of the day with the number two in parentheses next to it. Two bowls? Two cups? Two soups? Our chuckles echoed around the empty diner as we wondered if his mom, choosing the chicken salad, would choose the half order (2) or the full order (4). Two or four what, we never concluded, still giggling when the cashier/server delivered a 16-inch Italian combo sub ($9.99), an 8-inch veggie sub ($4.99) and an 8-inch Philly steak sub ($5.49) on big oval cafeteria plates, and a 12-inch Stromboli pizza ($12.99).
The hot sandwiches were served on Mancino's soft and crunchy home-baked white bread, one of the main reasons behind my colleague's many trips to Mancino's and one of the best parts of our meal. As a Mancino's regular when it was still in Boise and one who has even followed their home-baked bread to the Nampa location, her sandwich wasn't quite what she expected. She said they were usually packed with veggies and this one was definitely light. We could only assume her husband was happy because he was quiet as he stuffed sausage, salami, ham, mushrooms, onions, green peppers and tomatoes in his mouth, attempting to rise to our challenge to eat it all. His sub was full of salty, meaty bites with drippy mozzarella cheese holding it all together. The Philly steak was another cheese fest, the meat well-seasoned, little black pepper flecks dotting each slice, but not nearly as juicy as I had hoped. And the little piles of diced onion and green pepper on our plates meant most of them had fallen out of the sandwich, an outcome not as likely had they been sliced.
The pizza was a thick bed of crust with a delicious blanket of mozzarella layered over spicy sausage, ham, salami, pepperoni and ground beef. It, like the sandwiches was not great, but certainly good and definitely filling.
We boxed up leftovers, eschewed a post-meal trip to the nearby Dairy Queen and headed back across the miles of farmland, fields and new subdivisions toward home. Sometimes a meal's success is based not so much on the food but on the experience. Though the food wasn't extra special, the value and the time with our friends was and we have plans to visit Mancino's again. I'm already working on mix tape for the trip.
—Amy Atkins needs a refresher course on Douglas Adams' Bistromathics.