Anyone who watched the Cosby Show during its successful run in the 80s, or who watches the endless reruns on Nick at Nite, is familiar with the sub sandwiches that the Cosby character frequently ate to his wife’s despair as she worried about his cholesterol. In the early years, he even gave a name to the shop where he got those subs. He called it the White House Sub Shop. And in actual fact, that’s where those subs came from. Only the shop isn’t in Brooklyn. It’s in Atlantic City. And he used to have those subs specially driven up to the show because they were his favorites.
The White House sub shop has been in business for as long as I can remember on the corner of Mississippi and Arctic Avenues in Atlantic City. Cosby, a Philadelphia boy, probably learned to love their subs as a kid going to the shore for the weekends or the summer. It’s a habit not easily broken. When Bill Cosby went to Atlantic City in the 80s to do his stand up comedy in the casinos there, my mom would look out her window on Mississippi Avenue and see him walking towards the White House.
Their subs are, to put it mildly, positively addicting. Some say it’s the bread. Some say it the combination of meat and cheese and spices. Others say it’s the ambience of the shop itself. The White House is a moment frozen in time. It is the East Coast as it was 100 years ago when immigrants from Italy flooded the seaboard cities. It is the Northeast as it was during the fifties, only this is no re-creation. This is the original.
The place itself is small. A tiny counter on the left as you enter sits about five people. The rest of the left side is the counter where you order carry out. There are maybe six booths lining the right wall. The walls above the booths are filled with pictures of famous and almost famous people who have eaten there over the years. This tiny sub shop on a nondescript corner in Atlantic City has served everyone from the Beatles to Joe DiMaggio, from Tony Bennet to Tony Danza. People who know its subs will travel two hours by car just to get one.
When my sister surprised me for my 50th birthday by coming to Anchorage, she brought subs from the White House with her for my treat. When I go east to visit, a White House sub is as mandatory a part of the visit as seeing my brother and sister.
The stars of the White House, aside from the subs themselves, are the people who work there. They dress all in white with their names embroidered in red over the pocket of their shirts. Their sleeves are rolled up and their accents are pure South Jersey. And, as my mother would say, the map of Italy is written all over their faces.
The noise level in the place can be deafening as the men manning the various sub stations call back and forth to each other and the waitress with the easy familiarity that comes from growing up and living in the same neighborhood with the same friends for your whole life. The phone is always ringing off the hook with people calling in orders. Sometimes they just let it ring, too busy to even take another order.
My dad use to supply their lunchmeat from our grocery store and I used to deliver the orders. So despite the fact that I’m over 50, despite how many years my dad’s store has been closed, despite how long my dad has been dead, when I go in to order a sandwich, one of the older men will scrutinize my face for a moment and say, “You Phil Sereni’s kid, right?”
Recently, one of the men who made sandwiches at the White House died. Nick Pileggi was one of the guys who would always remember me as Phil Sereni’s kid.
And since he’d worked so long at the White House, the people he worked with wanted to give him an appropriate send off. So they had a floral bouquet made to look like a White House sub up on the altar at St. Mike’s for his funeral. One of the people who attended said it looked so real you felt like you could have eaten it.
Now some might think that a bit odd at a funeral. But not in my old neighborhood. On Mississippi Avenue, sending you off to god with a White House sub in your hand ensures you a great reception heaven – especially if it’s a regular, with all the trimmings and no stinting on the hot peppers.