The ‘Sandwich Saint’ Reveals the Best Royal Sandwich in the Bay Area

It is Damian Costello’s firm conviction that sandwiches are heavily criticized.

“We don’t put sandwiches on the same scale as we do hamburgers, pizzas and tacos, but it’s been a staple form of American cuisine,” Costello said. “I don’t think they get enough recognition.”

Costello — better known as Sandwich Saint on Instagram — has tried around 55 different sandwiches at delis and restaurants around the Bay Area over the past two years. He works as a line cook at Ernest’s Restaurant in San Francisco, and has maintained that stance for at least the last three years, as he began visiting different Bay Area eateries more frequently.

His love of sandwiches eventually led him to create Sandwich Saint, Costello’s personal social media page dedicated to the best sandwiches on the bay.

Sandwich Saint started in 2020, about a year after Costello started training for marathons. At first, Costello said he did a lousy job mapping out his runs in San Francisco and often found himself in pockets of neighborhoods he wasn’t familiar with, but he was always delighted when he stumbled upon a diner, especially after his arduous runs. .

The first was Irving Subs, before Cafe Okawari, Palm City Wines and more stores teased Costello with their unique sandwich offerings. A genuine sense of curiosity began to emerge as he tried chicken tandoori panini and banh mis, among others, and met the people behind the counter with every bite.

A selection of sandwiches featured on Damian Costello’s Instagram page, aka Sandwich Saint, clockwise from top left: Bi Rite’s roast beef and cheddar; the melted tuna from the Modigliani Cafe; a ham, egg and cheese on dark rye from Ted’s Market and Deli; and the Katsu Chicken Sandwich from Café Okawari.

Images via Damian Costello/@sandwich_saint

“Everyone Gathers [sandwiches] slightly different and the ingredients all affect the look,” Costello said. “I would split the sandwich in half and look at this cross section and each time it looked unique, even though it was a sandwich they had made before. The name ‘Sandwich Saint’ really came about because I’d open up a sandwich and if the cross section was really satisfying, I’d just be like, ‘Oh, it’s blessed.’”

Of the dozens of sandwiches Costello has tried so far, he finds it hard to pinpoint his absolute favorite, but after a moment of reflection, he shares that the best he’s tried is a tie between “the finest,” a decadent roast beef sandwich at O San Francisco’s popular Deli Board and the tuna melt found at Modigliani Cafe on Grand Ave. 3208-3210 in Oakland.

“It’s probably the diner I highly recommend,” Costello said of Modigliani Cafe.

A customer places their order at Modigliani Cafe in Oakland, California on June 3, 2022.

A customer places their order at Modigliani Cafe in Oakland, California on June 3, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

He almost apologizes when he admits that one of his favorite sandwiches is a tuna melt, but Costello pretty much describes the dish in lyrical prose without missing a single detail.

“It’s like a really eclectic little store and it’s in a beautiful area,” Costello said. “The texture of the tuna is wonderful, light and airy. [The owner] it packs the sandwich very thick so you get a lot of tuna in it, and it has high quality cheese that melts well and kind of coats the fish. Then [the owner] plates [the roll] to create a checkerboard pattern on top. I’m not a huge tuna guy, but I have strong gut cravings for this sandwich.”

Gerry Mogg, the owner of Modigliani Cafe, takes melting tuna very seriously. The sandwich involves a laborious hour-and-a-half process that begins with soaking the tuna several times, followed by a full pressing. A healthy dose of mayonnaise rehydrates the tuna, while lemon juice, red onion, celery, salt, pepper and other spices help add depth of flavor. Once the tuna is done, generous spoonfuls of tuna are placed on a semifreddi’s Bay Area bakery roll that is grilled to perfection.

“Every sandwich is handmade,” Mogg said. “Our sandwiches are huge and $12 on average.”

Mogg shared that he named his store after Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani, whose artwork can be seen throughout the store. Prior to Modigliani Cafe, Mogg said his upbringing took him in different directions, including running a processing plant, decades making independent films and some time working in the hotel industry. But upon reaching retirement age, Mogg decided to open a diner in 2014, where he works seven days a week.

Owner Gerry Mogg holds a tuna sandwich at Modigliani Cafe in Oakland, California, June 3, 2022.

Owner Gerry Mogg holds a tuna sandwich at Modigliani Cafe in Oakland, California, June 3, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

“Why did I do this after I retired? A stroke of madness,” Mogg said with a laugh. “I’m not sure how smart it is, but it’s fun and I like our customers. It’s about the food and the community.”

Mogg’s cheerful spirit is one of the reasons Costello keeps coming to the Oakland deli. In fact, when it comes to trying new eateries around the bay, Costello said he loves seeing restaurateurs and employees who take pride in the work they do every day.

“If you’re a diner, I want you to broadcast and get excited about it,” Costello said. “That’s what I’m really looking for: if it’s broadcast or if there’s an extensive sandwich menu. I get a little disappointed when sandwich options are extremely limited.”

Along the way, Costello also tried sandwiches in Detroit, where he has family, and on trips to New York. He can confidently say that sandwiches in the Bay Area have a broader spectrum of flavors thanks to California’s access to fresh produce. He adds that the wide selection of products and merchandise offers more “cultural flexibility” than their Midwest and East Coast counterparts, which he believes focus on Italian cold cuts, cheese steaks or classic turkey sandwiches. His only complaint about the Bay Area sandwich scene is the exorbitant prices.

The interior of Modigliani Cafe in Oakland, California on June 3, 2022.

The interior of Modigliani Cafe in Oakland, California on June 3, 2022.

Douglas Zimmerman/SFGATE

“That’s the thing with everything in San Francisco, I think,” Costello said. “Often it comes down to the price, but there are some sandwiches on the bay that I would pay $16 to $20 and I feel it’s justified. It’s outrageous. This is why I get frustrated when someone rushes a $16 sandwich – it drives me crazy.”

Prices aside, Costello hopes to continue scouring Bay Area delis for the next big bite, limiting his use of the internet. Every now and then, someone directs Costello on Instagram with a new diner recommendation, but he prefers to venture out on his own and come across a new business — as he did in the early days.

“I never wanted this sandwich hobby of mine to feel like influencer work,” he said. “I think when you go online and look for these things, you’re going to find things that are popular with the consumer. And there are plenty of amazing restaurants that don’t take advantage of social media either. When they’re not written, they’re kind of obfuscated. I think when I walk down the street and I see a little diner that’s exceptional, that’s a lot more exciting for me.”

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