Before I went to Cortina's, I'd never seen anyone clink sandwiches as though they were flutes of champagne. I was waiting for my meal, sitting next to two people who had just received their orders. They both reached into their paper baskets, took the thick Italian cold-cut sandwiches, hoisted them aloft, then clinked them together, touching bread on bread. After raising their toast, they ate and ate, not exchanging a word for a solid five minutes. The world around them seemed to fall away. They were on their own plane of consciousness. It was just them and their sandwiches—and I can't imagine them looking any happier. On a different day, I sat next to another couple. I heard the woman let out a subtle but audible sound of joy when her meatball sub arrived. As she took a bite, I saw her eyes roll to the back of her head. Then she put down the sandwich gently, dabbed a napkin to the corner of her mouth as she chewed and nodded as though she had reached some sort of spiritual epiphany.
My reaction to a sandwich called the Fireball was probably more subdued than those couples, but I was just as pleased—and surprised. Though the name itself should've warned me it'd be spicy, I didn't expect my whole mouth to throb. The first clue should've been the Calabrese salami, which one should never underestimate. Calabria, after all, is the Italian region as synonymous for its spicy food as Szechuan is to China. But it wasn't just the salami. There was also the wad of spicy cured capicolla harboring a low-frequency hotness of its own, the vinegar shrill of hot mix (a sort of relish made with pickled carrots) and, last but not least, a not-insignificant amount of whole pepperoncinis. As with the shredded lettuce, tomato and shaved onion, the hotness layered itself one on top of the other, building up the more I ate, requiring me to take a few cooling drags of soda before I would usually take a drink. I, too, reached the same kind of sandwich-induced enlightenment as I bit into that great, crackle-crusted bread and all that it held.
I'd eventually taste the meatball sandwich. And it, too, used that bread, its contents fused together in the broiler, cheese oozing, the tomato sauce sweet but not cloying, and the meat so soft and smooth it could be mousse. A burger seemed to use the same meat mix, except formed into a two-fingers-thick patty that was seared on the griddle to form a crispy brown crust, then gilded with cheese and piled with sautéed peppers and iceberg lettuce under a tall bun. The burger, which seems more experimental than the other traditional sandwiches on the menu, is unfortunately less impressive than its size. Much better was the sausage sandwich, in which fat, subtly spiced homemade links were split in half lengthwise and layered four slices thick with more of those near-liquefied sweet peppers. It's the kind of messy, overstuffed sandwich that disintegrates if you hold it wrong. Order it anyway.
Cortina's, 964 N. Batavia St., Orange, (714) 997-3663; cortinasitalianfood.com. Open Mon.-Sat., 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Lunch for two, $12-$17. No alcohol.
Located in a lonely stretch of road with nothing around but auto-body shops and industrial warehouses, this smaller Cortina's now acts as a refugee camp for its fans while the original restaurant and market in Anaheim rebuilds after a devastating fire in May. But this place—technically only a deli serving sandwiches, salads and a few pasta items—is not just some sort of temporary purgatory. It is and always has been a destination of its own, and now that it's open for lunch on Saturdays instead of just on weekdays, it's always filled with faithful customers such as the couples I sat next to. The room is hardly bigger than a one-car garage, made to resemble a turn-of-the-century packing house, with the rafters actually used for storage and most of the ground-level space occupied by a kitchen that produces not only those sandwiches, but also one of the best lasagnas I've ever eaten. Easily the best thing on the menu, it contains tiny cubed pieces of homemade sausage. If you order one, know that it easily feeds two. Share it with a friend at lunch, or save it for a candlelit dinner at home when you can raise a proper toast to Cortina's present and future with glasses of chianti.
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