In Red Hook, Brooklyn, there’s a legendary sandwich shop by the name of Defonte’s. Open since 1922, it’s now it’s the kind of place you find on TV shows and in guidebooks, but when I was a kid in a pre-Giuliani New York City, Defonte’s meant danger. Red Hook had been one of Brooklyn’s most dangerous neighborhoods since before the Civil War, full of sailors, longshoremen, scalawags, and ne’er do wells. It was the birthplace of Alphonse Gabriel Capone and its corruption was the inspiration for On the Waterfront. No one went to Red Hook unless they had a reason to, and Defonte’s potato and egg sandwich was one of those reasons.
You could find potato and egg sandwiches in any neighborhood settled by Italian immigrants, from Arthur Avenue up in the Bronx down to my neighborhood on the southern edge of Brooklyn, and while all these sandwiches (like many working-class immigrant foods) were simply assembled from cheap, plentiful ingredients, there was always something about the Defonte’s version that was better. It wasn’t until I became a chef that I figured out the secret wasn’t a special spice or technique—it was nothing. Seriously, nothing: The key to this sandwich is to keep it simple, keep it easy, and don’t overthink it. At Defonte’s, layers of cooked potatoes and mozzarella are placed into a hotel pan, covered with eggs, and baked until done. Then it gets plopped in a steam table where it sits for hours, drying out ever so slightly as the day goes on.
The brilliance of this sandwich is that it’s cheap, it’s filling, it can be made by absolutely anybody regardless of their skill level, and yet somehow it’s still better than any fancy-pants sandwich I’ve ever eaten. If you overbake it a bit, it will still be good. If you let it sit around for a while, it will still be good, if not better. This recipe makes enough for eight sandwiches, which I’m certain you won’t be able to eat by yourself in one day, though you might consider it after a few bites. You do not need to consider scaling it down, though, as you’ll want leftovers for breakfast the next morning. And probably for lunch, too.
Makes enough for 4 sandwiches, plus some leftovers for midnight snacks
- 2 medium russet potatoes, unpeeled, sliced into 1/4" thick rounds
- 2 cups water
- 2 tsp. chicken bouillon paste (like Better Than Bouillon or College Inn Savory Infusions)
- 3/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
- 8 eggs
- 1/4 cup heavy cream
- 1 pint cherry or grape tomatoes, halved
- 1-2 Tbsp. olive oil
- 3 fat cloves garlic, minced
- 2 tsp. tomato paste
- 1 Tbsp. fresh oregano, or 1 tsp. dried oregano
- One loaf of Italian bread (or a baguette)
- Salt and pepper
Whisk together the water and chicken base in a medium saucepan, then add the potatoes and place on the stove over high heat. Partially cover the pan with a lid and bring to a boil; remove the lid, reduce the heat to medium, and simmer for about 3-4 minutes until the potatoes can be easily pierced with a fork. Drain, discarding the cooking liquid, and set the potatoes aside to cool.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Lightly grease a 9 x 5 loaf pan with butter or olive oil. Whisk the eggs with the heavy cream, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and some freshly cracked pepper until they are completely smooth (an immersion blender is great for this) and let sit for 10 minutes.
Cover the bottom of the loaf pan with half the sliced potatoes, sprinkle with a bit of salt and pepper, cover with 1/4 cup mozzarella, then add the rest of the potatoes and another 1/4 cup of cheese. Slowly pour in the egg mixture, then gently tap the pan on the counter a few times to help everything settle. Bake for 20 minutes, then cover with the remaining 1/4 cup of mozzarella cheese and bake for another 10 minutes or so until the cheese is melted and the eggs are firm. Allow the eggs to cool for 5 minutes, then invert the pan onto a cutting board to release.
While the eggs rest, make the tomato sauce: In a skillet over high heat, cook the halved tomatoes and a generous pinch of kosher salt in the olive oil for about 5 minutes or so until they begin to brown and break down. Add the garlic, tomato paste, and oregano, and cook, stirring constantly, until jammy—another 3-5 minutes.
Split and cut the bread into sandwich-sized pieces and toast. Cut the eggs into thick slices and serve on bread with tomato sauce.