Justin "The Hill Topper" Bruegenhemke
There once was a time where you couldn't get on your phone or computer to quickly find out what the best sandwich on The Hill was. You had to either find some kind of official food publication or talk to an expert. A real human! You'd schlep over to Tony's house down the road and ask him. He'd been to every single shop. He knew the owners. He knew what to eat and what to avoid. Tony was the sandwich guy, a badge he wore proudly. He probably didn't even have a job, he'd just sit in front of his house and talk sandwiches while working on his car. We don't have a lot of those people these days. Now we just have idiots on Yelp. However! We do have Justin Bruegenhemke, a young, upstanding gent who was spending his lunches eating sandwiches all over The Hill, when his neighbor asked him "what's the best sandwich?" Bruegenhemke's response: "I haven't eaten them all, so I can't tell you."
Sick of his excuses for not providing an answer to their sandwich inquiries, his neighbors laid out a challenge (or perhaps a demand?): try them all! With the guanto thrown, Bruegenhemke took on a new identity.
Sandwich Shops on The Hill
From that day forward, he would be The Hill Topper. He set about to eat 158 sandwiches from The Hill's 9 sandwich shops, a task so daunting, none had attempted it before. On January 18th, The Hill Topper project was completed—Gioia's Hogfather marked #158.
I've followed Bruegenhemke (on Twitter and Instagram) from around the midway point, growing more and more impressed with each sandwich he downed. It seemed to me that he was either my competition or my new BFF. Our shared interests in whiskey, Nick Blue's cheeseburger, and eating excessively pointed to BFF. There was only one way to figure it out: a meet-up at the home of Hot Salami, Gioia's—a place I shamefully admit I had not been to.
I get there early and hold a table, which feels like it might be a faux pas. I pull my camera out so everyone knows I mean business. The door opens behind me and there he is: dressed in all black, it's The Hill Topper. I'm fairly shocked to see he's not 350 lbs, but that probably goes both ways.
We get in line; I defer our ordering to him, seeing as he is the expert. We get the Spicy Daggett—Hot Salami, hot coppa, and capicolla, and spicy giardiniera on toasted garlic pepper cheese bread—and, off the not-so-secret secret menu, his namesake, The Hill Topper: capicolla, Hot Salami and hot beef topped with spicy giardiniera and pepper jack cheese, all on toasted garlic bread.
The sandwiches are, as with most Italian sandwiches, hefty. I already know I won't be feeling good about myself later this evening. We split each sandwich in half and swap. I start with the Spicy Daggett. GODDAMN. Most Italian sandwiches bore me, but the hot salami—somewhere between mortadella, porchetta di testa, and headcheese—is sending chills down my spine.
"I thought hot salami was just spicy salami originally, but the hot comes from being warm. You can order logs of it, then slow cook it at home for 10 hours," Bruegenhemke says. "I want to slice it thick and cook it real crispy. I want some eggs on it."
Just thinking about this on a breakfast sandwich clogs my heart a little, but it would be so worth it.
The Hill Topper is the beefy cousin of the Spicy Daggett. "I used to come in and get the Spicy Dagget, then I subbed out one of the cured porks for beef. It's much less salty and spicy because of the beef," Justin explains. He's right. It's a beautiful blend of meats and toppings.
You're hungover and craving breakfast?
Donna Do You Wanna's Heartthrob at J Viviano's
Breakfast, lunch, & dinner in one?T
The Space Ball at Gioia's
Something quick and affordable?
How does a 9inch Meatball with homemade red sauce Eovaldi's for $5 sound? Hit them up Monday-Friday for lunch.
Need warmth on a cold winter's day?
Gorgonzola Dip at Adriana's
Got the need for cheese?
The Daily State Special at Eovaldi's
Don't eat pork?
Mary's Special - Adriana's Sicilian Bomber - Eovaldi's New York Philly- Gioia's
"How long did it take for you to eat all 158 sandwiches?" I ask.
"When I decided to do it, I crossed off the sandwiches I'd had ten times and knew everything about. If there were sandwiches that I thought I’d had but wasn’t sure, i left them on and had it again. Initially, I crossed off 30 or so. I would go to Gioia's and Adriana’s all the time before."
"It took me about a year—I had over 100 sandwiches in less than 12 months. It’s a decent pace, a sandwich every other day. Also, no issue on doing half and half. You can eat half a sandwich and get what it’s about."
"Your son is going to be so proud of you one day," I say.
I ask him what his favorite of the 9 shops is. Justin answers, without skipping a beat, "I find myself telling everyone to go to Gioia’s, Eovaldi’s, and Adriana’s. These three just shine above the rest. Mama Toscano’s is good, but they only have six or seven sandwiches. It’s basically just take out. They have the best toasted ravioli’s in the world, though. They do a meatball parmesan—breaded and fried meatballs—it’s really good. Basically a toasted ravioli sandwich."
Rather than picking a single favorite, he's come up with a series of lists for you to adhere to. Coming soon on Whiskey And Soba, we'll have his "Best at Each" restaurant, and below you'll find the "Quintessentials". However, there was one sandwich worse than the rest: the egg salad at Southwest Market.
Bruegenhemke's determination is admirable, to say the least. Mere mortals would give up on such an undertaking after sandwich 50 or so. When I ask him if he's glad it's over, he seems thankful; he can go back to eating just his favorites...but there's a glint in his eyes, a smirk on his face. He's got something else up his sleeve. I nudge and prod, but he won't give in. The Hill Topper has another eating conquest in mind, but he's not ready to share it.
For his sake, I hope it's eating every salad in town. But we all know it won't be.
Hot Salami on garlic cheese bread
The Extra Special
The Gorgonzola Dip
The Berra Park Club
The Sophia Loren
New York Steak Sandwich
The Hill Topper