In a generation where Subway sandwiches are to Italian subs what Chipotle is to burritos, it’s time for a sit down to revisit L.A.’s granddaddy of them all, the Godmother at Bay Cities in Santa Monica and get a taste of The Stepmother, Zach Pollack’s homage to the hoagie at Cosa Buona in Echo Park.
According to Bay Cities general manager Hector Padilla, whose family owns the deli that opened in 1925, the iconic sub has been around since the ’50s and is named the Godmother because in Italian lore, that’s who feeds the family.
From the bottom up, the Godmother starts with Italian prosciutto, ham, capicola, mortadella, Genoa salami and provolone cheese topped with the works — mild in-house roasted bell peppers or spicy giardiniera, tomatoes, iceberg lettuce, mayo and yellow mustard on bread that’s baked fresh on site daily.
The order of construction is crucial to preventing sogginess and proper containment of the juicy ingredients which still inevitably drip down your arm.
Other local restaurants have tried to copy the original under dubious circumstances, including one on Melrose whose owner caused a scene in Bay Cities when Padilla invoked the omertà oath, refusing to disclose certain family secrets.
But Pollack, who grew up on the Westside on a steady diet of Godmothers, pays homage to the original with a respectful and delicious close second on the other side of town.
“This is my version of the Godmother,” says Pollack, formerly of Sotto and who also owns nearby Alimento in Silver Lake. “It’s not supposed to be something that dethrones the Godmother or something that tries to be close to the Godmother. I’m not trying to reproduce it, it’s just my inspiration.”
And speaking of inspiration, because Pollack grew up in a large blended family during those many years of eating at Bay Cities, the Stepmother pays homage to those women in his life.
“My dad’s going on 75 and has been married four times. It’s an L.A. story for me.”
The Stepmother’s cold cuts include capicola, salami, prosciutto, mortadella, old school sharp provolone from Italy, mayo, yellow mustard, iceberg, onions and giardiniera. There’s not a spicy version. Padilla says Bay Cities is the only sub in town that uses five different meats.
Both renditions began with bought bread and now bake on site. For years, the Godmother was cradled in soft French bread from the historic Pioneer Bakery in Venice on Rose Avenue, just a few blocks from the house where Padilla grew up in and his parents still live.
“I worked as a salesman for Pioneer bakery for 10 years,” Padilla tells L.A. Weekly from the bustling deli on Lincoln Boulevard filled with a market begging for impulse purchases while you wait in line for your order number to come up.
“From our house we would smell the bread everyday between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m., when they were baking the French bread. The sour dough was baked in the middle of the night.”
Cosa Buona has a combi oven instead of a steam oven, which creates a more blistery crust on the Godmother. The Stepmother has a nice crust and chew and is a little sturdier and not as soft inside as the Bay Cities bread.
“In this ciabatta there’s no whole wheat,” Pollack tells L.A. Weekly from his old school sit-down Italian haunt at the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Alvarado. “We use organic flours that are artisanal-milled, but we’re not going for that rustic loaf for this type of sandwich. Since we make our own pizza dough and focaccia, making the bread was not a big leap.”
While both mothers are as close to sisters as you can get, only the home surroundings are the real striking differences. And as imitation is the greatest form of flattery, Padilla enjoys a little friendly cross-town competition.
“I have respect for Zach because he’s not going out to media outlets saying he’s competing with us,” says Padilla.
“I’m going to have to go into Cosa Buona and try their pizza. That’s the one thing we don’t make here. If we’re not great at something, why do it? Let somebody else do it.”