The legendary Vento’s Pizza over in East Liberty has a highly storied background. The small, family-run Italian eatery was nearly closed down due to corporate construction some years back; thankfully, the Ventos and Home Depot came to a resolution, extending the availability of some spectacular Italian fare.
Now, being located in Pittsburgh, another part of the history of Vento’s obviously has to do with the Steelers. Franco Harris, one of the best Steelers of all time, was extremely popular with Pittsburgh’s Italian-American population: his fans called themselves “Franco’s Italian Army.” So, in order to satiate the masses of Steeler Nation, Al Vento decided to come up with a brilliant sandwich and call it the Italian Army. I’d heard the name many times but never actually tried it; boy am I glad I did.
However, I must take time to warn you: it’s a far cry from a classic Italian. Made up of “chopped beef topped with fried onions, marinara sauce & provolone cheese, lettuce & tomato on a crusty Italian roll,” this thing is yet another powerhouse sandwich. We’ve got two different ‘wich schools of though going on here (yes, that is a reference to my perpetually evolving book on sandwich theology. In stores… soon.) Anyway, we have the cheesesteak (provolone, onions and beef) combining with Italian ingredients (marinara sauce, provolone, lettuce & tomato). Here? They go together perfectly.
Allow me to elaborate. First you’ve got the supposed stars of the show: the beef, the provolone, the onions and the marinara sauce. The grilled heartiness of the meat combines with the provolone and onions for that familiar cheesesteak flavor, and then comes the red stuff. Vento’s makes their own sauces, and this is one where you can tell it’s homemade. There’s a certain lightness to it: the focus of the sauce is the tomato flavor, just the way it should be. So when the sauce is added to the cheesesteak flavor, it’s basically adding the taste of a tomato in terms of flavor, and then the temperature it brings is key: to me, a warm sauce on a sandwich makes the ‘wich that much more inviting.
Then there’s the underrated parts of the sandwich: the lettuce and tomato. Being the only two cold ingredients, they’re already bringing a new spin in the temperature department, but they’re also bringing something else: a new style of flavor. All of the aforementioned ingredients have been on the savory side of the flavor spectrum; here, the lettuce brings in a kick of freshness and crispness, while the tomatoes pile on the acidity. Really, without these two, the ‘wich has the potential to be TOO savory (hard to believe, but it’s possible!) What’s surprising is how often you taste the lettuce and tomato, probably due to the sharp contrast with the rest of the ingredients. Whatever the reason, Vento’s is getting it exactly right by putting these in between the crusty bookends.
For all of the hype, the Italian Army was still able to impress me. It was a unique style of Italian sandwich, taking two styles of ‘wich and making one warm, melty, fresh behemoth that definitely needs a second (hungry) opinion. From me.