It’s four months into the year, and among the Christmas gifts that have been put to actual use rather than returned, regifted or banished to the basement: “The Mac & Cheese Cookbook” by Alison Arevalo and Erin Wade, proprietors of Homeroom, an Oakland, Calif., restaurant based around the almost divine-like combination of elbow noodles and the sauce of coagulated milk casein.
For one who views macaroni and cheese as my own personal manna, this is a sacred text. The 28 recipes include a Classic Mac, Jalapeno Popper Mac, Sriracha Mac, Dungeness Crab Mac, Patatas Bravas Mac, Shepherd’s Pie Mac, Truffle Mac and Pesto Mac.
And while I’m still getting my béchamel technique down and have dutifully attempted some of the recipes, they are done in vain so long as Tootie’s Famous Italian Beef is making a Smokey Bacon Cheese Sauce Mac ’n’ Cheese within walking distance of my house.
Opened in late 2012 by Karl Horn in a small South Side storefront, the house specialty is a recipe from his mother (Carol, aka “Tootie,” for whom the shop is named) that he’s eaten his entire life: the Chicago Italian Beef sandwich.
A native of Mattoon, Ill., Mr. Horn landed here a few years ago to get his MBA at Duquesne and worked in health care consulting before having an “Office Space” moment — a boss contacted him on a Saturday night for a report not due for several days. He decided corporate America wasn’t for him, so he opened the shop.
A distant cousin to Buffalo’s Beef on Weck or L.A.’s French Dip, the sandwich is a Windy City staple but was previously little known here in Steel Town. The Horn family recipe is comprised of shredded beef that’s been slow-cooked for up to a day in a secret recipe of 12 spices and three vegetables, with pepperoncinis for a little extra zing, served on an Italian hoagie bun with provolone ($8.99 for a six-inch sandwich).
The tender meat nearly liquefies in your mouth and is so juicy that the bun quickly becomes a disintegrated sponge. There is no dignified way to eat this — you’ll end up wearing a good portion of it, looking like a toddler that hasn’t mastered the whole food-to-mouth concept — but apparently that’s the idea. Initially Tootie’s served only this namesake sandwich but has the menu has expanded to add 10 more including chicken, Italian sausage and various permutations of all three.
I’ve eaten the Italian beef many times, but for an office takeout order, an editor and I had a Pavlovian response at the idea of the “Mac on a Stick” — locally made Uncle Charley’s hot Italian sausage with marinara topped with the aforementioned bacon mac and cheese ($9.99).
Unfortunately, the spicy sausage and marinara, while plenty tasty, drown out the great flavor of the mac and cheese. Thankfully, I’d gotten a separate half-pint of it ($4.99) and the cheesy, smoky, bacony, salty, savory, creamy awesomeness was as good as I remembered. I could eat it daily.
Another colleague had the chicken sandwich, the “Clucker” ($8.99), and she reports that it was “excellent,” but the heat from the seasoning and the pickled cauliflower and carrots (called Giardiniera) atop the meat screams: “Need a beer, here!”
Sadly HR wouldn’t approve, as we don’t work for Don Draper, so a diet pop had to suffice.
We all agreed that a hard roll or a baguette might better handle all the juice and sauce that these sandwiches exude.
Then again, who are we to argue with decades of family tradition? Thanks to Mama Horn and Karl for bringing this messy treat to Pittsburgh — and especially to the overbearing boss that caused him to quit his day job.
Tootie’s Italian Beef: 93 S. 16th St., South Side Flats; 412-586-5959; www.tootiesfamous.com.
Dan Gigler: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @gigs412.