In Red Bank, New Jersey, on Monmouth Street, is a place called Mr. Pizza Slice. For all of my junior year of high school, I would meet up with my chums at the end of the school day and hang out there. We would listen to the jukebox, play video games, drink soda, and eat. It was all very Happy Days -- except with Catholic school blazers instead of letterman sweaters, and I don’t remember one single guy that carried a comb in his back pocket.
Steve was the guy behind the counter and he knew us all by name. Steve made a very good slice of pizza, had a great head of black hair, and was comfortable enough with all of us to know who the trouble-makers were and to chase us out after the time our rent (paid in slices, or orders of round French fries and fountain beverages) had ended, usually around 4:30 PM. The thing Steve made, though, that sits him squarely in the middle of my memories of great food only to be had in my hometown, is the Italian Hot Dog.
Most places in America with any credibility have their hot dog and its preparation. In Monmouth County, NJ, they are Shickhouse dogs that sit on a flat griddle for an indeterminate amount of time. Once the natural casing starts to brown and crack, they are ready. These dogs are about 10 inches long, mildly yet pleasantly spiced, and are available at most of the bars around town. In my opinion, they are best when they have done a progression from the cooler part to the ready part of the griddle and have then split wide on one side. Put this on a regular old bun that has had its inside tanned on the griddle, with spicy brown mustard and copious amounts of sauerkraut, and you would have my favorite version; that is, except for Steve’s Italian Hot Dog.
At Mr. Pizza Slice, the natural casing dog starts on a flat griddle. When you order an Italian Hot Dog, it is moved to a grill where it sits over a fire for a couple of seconds (a step I am against, except in this case). Then it goes into a deep, chewy, half an Italian sub roll (not Italian bread, but the unique rolls that exist only here for the subs of this area). On top of the dog goes a little pizza sauce and sautéed peppers and onions (just like you’d find on a sweet sausage at a street fair), then some round French (we called them Spanish) fries go on top of that. Onto all of this, I like to add a little mustard (it is a hot dog after all).
Maybe it’s because I had Steve’s growing up, or maybe because it is born of an aesthetic that runs through the Jersey shore and therefore through me, but I have had things people call an Italian hot dog in other places, and none are as good as this. Every time someone says theirs is better, they face Steve’s and concede. Don’t believe me? Try it.