MARQUETTE COUNTY — It’s amazing how something from another county can become such a popular item in our great Upper Peninsula, even after so many years.
The Cudighi has been a staple of the food scene in the Upper Peninsula for years. The sandwich was first introduced in the area by Italian immigrants in the mid-1930s. Since then, many restaurants around the U.P. have made it their own, forging special recipes and ingredients, each one as delicious as the next one.
“It’s kind of a Yooper thing. The Cudighi’s been around for a long time, everybody has their own little twist on it,” said Mike Lawry of Lawry’s Pasty Shop
“It was mostly made by families at home before it was ever marketed,” said Dominic Gervasi, owner of Ralph’s Italian Deli.
Coming from downstate, I had never heard of a cudighi before. So, naturally, being a foodie, I was ecstatic to hear about this sandwich. I went to a few of the well-known locations that serve this Italian delicacy.
First stop? Lawry’s Pasty Shop in West Ishpeming. It’s a classic “Ma and Pa” joint, by far my favorite type of restaurant in the entire world.
“My Grandmother started a pasty shop in 1946, 71 years ago this year. In the early 80’s we started with pizzas and cudighis and it kind of derived from our own pizza sausage recipe. And we started making cudighis and putting them on a homemade buns, and we’ve been doing it ever since,” said Lawry.
Lawry’s does it differently compared to other places in the area: sauce, cheese, sausage, cheese, and sauce again. A perfect symmetrical sandwich, just how Grandma used to make.
“We don’t change anything here. We believe in doing things the way Grandma taught us to do, years and years ago.”
After some time in the oven, it’s ready to eat. Perhaps the most important part, in my mind at least?
“You can’t get a cudighis bigger than ours for the same price that you’d pay for anybody else,” said Lawry.
I can’t confirm nor deny that, but this thing is massive. I’m no Guy Fieri, but I do know how to eat and I couldn’t finish this beast. It was literally the size of my face.
Moving east, my next stop was Ralph’s Italian Deli. The cudighi has been one of the go-to meals at Ralph’s for over 50 years.
“My dad started this in a little wagon downtown next to a bar, and he used to have a line of 20, 30 people going through, and just buying cudighis,” said owner Bruno Gervasi.
Most people prefer to have their cudighis with pizza sauce and mozzarella cheese. Ralph’s offers the original option, with mustard and onions. Like I said, each cudighis is unique.
“We take pride in how we make it, as far as the lean meats that we use, how it’s made with the homemade bun, if you don’t have a homemade Italian bun with it, it’s not the same,” said Gervasi.
Ralphs might be the best known for making cudighis — their sandwiches have reached all corners of the globe. I don’t blame those people. The original, with mustard and onions, was to die for. Like Lawry’s, the aspect of family has kept the cudighi just as good as the last.
Next up, Vango’s in Marquette, a classic college-town pizza joint. But, of course, this place sells cudighis as well. Started by Clark Lambrose in the early 60’s, the cudighi was one of the main items on the menu.
“It’s a restaurant secret, known only to the partners. We make it fresh every single day, grind the pork every day, add our spices, garlic, wine, different things, and keep it fresh every day and that’s really what makes it great,” said manager Robert Caron.
Yes, wine. It provides a unique taste to the sauce, which is trapped beneath a thick layer of cheese, perfect for locking in the moisture and taste. This was perhaps the most unique method I had seen. Try as I might, I could not pry the secret out, to figure out what made this sandwich so unique.
“It’s in the taste. I mean, you take a bite, and you know. You know how good it is. And I have people come to the restaurant and they say they’ve never had a cudighi and I’m like, ‘today’s going to be your day.’” said Caron. “And they try one and they’re like, ‘Holy…this is incredible.’ You know, and it really is, it’s a very unique sandwich to this area, and it’s a proud tradition that we’re happy to keep carrying on.”
As a huge plus, that tradition comes with waffle fries and homemade ranch sauce at Vango’s. Despite the entrapment of the sauce, the sandwich was a bit messy, but sometimes messy is better. It’s another unique spin on the Italian sandwich that has captured the hearts and taste buds of many from near and far, for many years.
I don’t have a favorite, but if I were to try and figure that out, I suppose I could stop by each of those places and try a cudighi again.