Sort-of Secret: Frank Ranalli’s, an Italian beef sandwich business inside a hot dog shop

Sort-of Secret: Frank Ranalli’s, an Italian beef sandwich business inside a hot dog shop

More Sort-of Secrets

The sort-of secret: Frank Ranalli’s, an Italian beef sandwich spot inside a Little Portugal hot dog shop
You may have heard of it if: You’ve ever visited Woofdawg Hotdog, where chef-owner Stephen Payne now makes and sells the Italian sandwiches (or if watching The Bear inspired you to seek out such sandwiches)
But you probably haven’t tried it because: Payne is still trying to spread the word about his sammies

Much like his Italian sandwiches, Stephen Payne is on a roll. Last year, he opened Woofdawg Hotdog on Dundas West, serving up fully loaded franks. Now, he’s selling Chicago-style Italian beef sandwiches from inside the same spot, with a side project called Frank Ranalli’s.

The menu is simple: there’s the hot Italian beef, featuring spicy giardiniera ($12); the sweet Italian beef, with roasted green peppers ($12); the Italian sausage, topped with mozzarella, sautéed peppers and onions ($12); and the combo sandwich, a mix of beef and sausage ($16).

“They’re messy, super flavourful sandwiches,” says Payne. “Every bite is a juicy one.”

Sandwiches left to right: the combo, the sweet, and the hot. Add marinated olives ($4), a caesar salad ($10) and fresh-cut fries ($6). Then wash it all down with a Brio, the Italian soft drink ($3.50)

Payne draws a lot of menu inspiration from Chicago, a city he visited several times while doing research for his hot dog enterprise. “They’ve got a really unpretentious food scene,” says Payne. “In one weekend, I hit up six or seven different hot dog joints.”

While there, Payne was introduced to giardiniera, a vegetable garnish made with a jumble of peppers (sweet, serrano, jalapeno), cauliflower, carrots, celery, oil and garlic. “The idea is that you take everything from the garden and put it together,” he says.

Here’s the combo sandwich, featuring Italian sausage and sliced beef squeezed inside a warm baguette. Choose between sweet or hot peppers. On the side: marinated olives and fresh-cut fries

He started making giardiniera for family and friends in his spare time. Before long, Payne slapped the pickled mix on a hot dog, just to see what would happen. It was totally delish, so he wanted to find a way to feature it on a sandwich. And that’s how Frank Ranalli’s was born.

But wait—who the heck is Frank Ranalli? He’s Payne’s great-grandfather, a first-generation Italian Canadian who lived in Hamilton. “My ancestors came from pretty much right smack in the middle of the boot,” says Payne, in the Abruzzo region, just east of Rome. “I used to visit grandpa Frank a few times a year, and we’d eat pasta, homemade sausages, stuffed peppers. He’s my connection to my Italian ancestry.”

Back in the day, Ranalli had a serious DIY mentality when it came to food, making his own pickles and sausages. He was also really into sandwiches. So Payne, who clearly inherited Ranalli’s culinary passion, thought it would only be fitting to name the new Italian sandwich business after him. “My mom thought it was a pretty cool idea,” he says.

Payne sells the sandwiches from behind the Woofdawg counter

To make the beef sandwiches, Payne warms up the meat by soaking it in its own juices while the French roll warms on the grill. Then he adds the appropriate toppings, whether green peppers or giardiniera. After that, it’s a bit of a choose-your-own-adventure scenario.

Customers can select one of three fates for their sandwich: dry, wet or dipped. In the first scenario, the beef is pulled from the jus and allowed to drip dry. Wet involves squeezing the beef into the roll and giving it an extra scoop of flavourful sauce. As for dipped, the entire sandwich gets dunked into the jus, creating a sloppy supernova of a sandwich.

“Eating it dipped is a completely different experience. You have to stand a certain way to make sure the juice doesn’t drip all over you,” says Payne. “Spread your feet shoulder-width apart, hunch over at the hip and take a bite. Keep the wrapper underneath, because you don’t want to lose any of the beef or giardiniera.”

“The au jus is pretty banging. There’s lots of bold flavour to it,” says Payne. “It’s really beefy, with paprika, black pepper and lots of garlic”

There’s also an Italian-style poutine ($13) topped with shaved beef, giardiniera and cheese sauce. “You can sop up the giardiniera with the French fries,” says Payne. “In terms of flavour, it’s a home run.”

Over the past few months, Payne noticed an uptick in business. He thinks it’s because of the The Bear, FX’s hit series about an Italian beef sandwich shop in (where else?) Chicago. Fun fact: Toronto’s own celeb chef Matty Matheson is a cast member. The critically acclaimed cinematography includes long, indulgent shots of the sandwich-making process, which explains the sudden hunger for Italian beef. “After the show came out, people were interested in the sandwich a bit more,” says Payne. “It definitely started a trend.”

If Frank Ranalli’s finds success, Payne would consider opening a stand-alone sandwich shop. “We have the space in Woofdawg to do all of the prep,” says Payne. “We could definitely expand the menu to include other warm Italian sandwiches, like meatball subs and veal parms. For now it’s just Italian beef. Let’s see where that goes. I’d love nothing more than to put Frank Ranalli’s on the Toronto map.”

And here’s a mouth-watering photo of some serious sandwich dunkage