Don’t even try. Steve DeSanctis isn’t about to give up his family’s secret recipe for the Dynamite, a sandwich known to only two communities on the planet. One of those is his hometown of Madison, Maine, population 4,700. The other is Woonsocket, Rhode Island, population 41,000.

Within Madison’s boundaries, residents adore the Dynamite, a sandwich made with meatballs and seasoned vegetables in a homemade marinara sauce, and served on a hot dog bun. They make it in big batches for church suppers, and sell it at high school sports games in the fall. And it’s not a family reunion, says town manager Tim Curtis, unless somebody in the family spent two or three days before the party slaving over the different components of the sandwich.

“This goes back to lore and history,” said Curtis, who grew up in Madison. “When I was a kid, you could probably go to a half-dozen restaurants in the area and find a Dynamite. To an outsider, it looks like spaghetti sauce on a hot dog bun. To those in the know, this is something really special.”

When it came time to organize this year’s town chili cook-off – held every year during Madison-Anson Days, a festival that features pig scrambles and pony rides – Curtis decided it was time for something different and changed the event to a Dynamite cook-off. One of the people competing in the Aug. 23 cook-off will be Steve DeSanctis, in a team called “La Mia Famiglia,” which is Italian for “my family.”

Many families in Madison have their own versions of the Dynamite, and one or two even claim that it was one of their ancestors who invented it. But DeSanctis, 62, is convinced – as are many folks in town, including the local historical society – that his grandfather’s version is the original one.

“I’ve been to parties and friends’ weddings where I’ve made them and somebody else brought them, but you’ll see a bigger line at my table than you will at anybody else’s,” he said.

That may sound cocky, but keep in mind that it took some persuading on the part of town officials to get DeSanctis to enter this year’s contest.

“The only reason I’m doing the cook-off this year is so people can taste the original,” DeSanctis said. “It’s not about the notoriety or winning a trophy. It’s so people can taste them.”

THE GOSPEL OF DYNAMITE

DeSanctis’ grandfather, Carlo, immigrated to the United States from Palermo with his wife and older sister. DeSanctis isn’t sure what year his grandparents arrived in Maine, but his father was born in Madison in 1915, when Carlo was about 30. According to the historical society, Carlo “Sandy” DeSanctis (his nickname came from the color of his hair) owned and operated a combination dry goods store and restaurant that catered to paper mill workers. It was there, in the late 1920s, that he came up with the Dynamite sandwich – so called, the story goes, because it was seasoned with lots of crushed red pepper and someone who ate it once said it was “hot as dynamite.” The sandwich was made with “elongated” meatballs, shaped something like skinny footballs.

According to the Madison Historical Society, Carlo “Sandy” DeSanctis came up with the Dynamite sandwich in the 1920s. Photo from the "Madison Bicentennial Cookbook"

A lot of people who try making Dynamites today turn it into a one-pot meal, but Sandy DeSanctis, his grandson Steve says, always prepared the red sauce, meatballs and vegetables – green peppers, onions and celery – in different pots. To assemble the sandwich, he’d put the meatballs in the roll first, then add the vegetables, then the marinara. It’s that kind of care and attention that set the DeSanctis sandwiches apart from the rest, Madisonites say.

“They’re not real Dynamites,” Curtis said, “unless you’ve spent two or three days making them.”

Sandy DeSanctis died in 1956 at age 71, on the day after his grandson Steve was born. Steve DeSanctis’ father carried on the Dynamite tradition at his own restaurant, which he named Sandy’s Villa.

“If you wanted a Dynamite (in Madison), that’s where you went to get one,” DeSanctis said.

DeSanctis worked there as a teenager, washing dishes, cutting vegetables and making meatballs for the Dynamites. His father used tomatoes from Micucci’s in Portland for his sauce.

“There was always a kettle of sauce going and a kettle of vegetables going,” DeSanctis said, “and either my brother or myself would be in a corner, rolling meatballs. I’ve made more meatballs than I’ve made mud pies, I’ll tell you that.”

As the years have gone by, Dynamites have disappeared from central Maine restaurants and become a hyper-local phenomenon. “Once you get out of this part of central Maine,” Curtis said, “people scratch their heads and don’t know what you’re talking about.”

ET TU, WOONSOCKET?

Well, not exactly.

Madison, meet your Dynamite doppelgänger: Woonsocket, Rhode Island.

Woonsocket has long laid claim to the Dynamite, and it is still sold in a handful of eateries there, including the Castle Restaurant in downtown Woonsocket. Its origin story is eerily similar to that in Madison. In Woonsocket, an immigrant also sold the sandwiches to millworkers in the 1920s. (Locals aren’t sure, though, if he or she came from Italy or was French Canadian.) And Woonsocket has held three of its own Dynamite cook-offs in recent years.

So much in common, yet neither town was aware of the other’s claims of Dynamite glory.

When Robert Billington, president of the nonprofit Blackstone Valley Tourism Council, which sponsored the Rhode Island Dynamite cook-offs, heard about Madison’s claims last week, he challenged the Maine town to a Dynamite duel: “When they’re ready, we’re going to have our governor square off with your governor, and we’ll have a public standoff off over this,” he said. “We’re going to challenge the origins of the Dynamite. So the gauntlet is thrown.”

Billington says everyone in Woonsocket claims to have the best Dynamite recipe (one cook even adds peanut butter to the marinara sauce), and just like in Madison, the sandwich shows up at every backyard barbecue, Sunday picnic and community festival. “If you run for office,” he said, “at the VFW hall there’s a beer-and-Dynamite fundraiser for you.”

There is one major culinary difference between Dynamites in Madison and Woonsocket, though. In Madison, the cooks prefer meatballs. In Woonsocket, everyone uses ground beef, which is probably why their Dynamites are often compared to Sloppy Joes.

“Sounds like a meatball sandwich,” Billington said when he heard a description of a Madison Dynamite. “A Dynamite has to be made with (loose) ground beef. Some people, if they want to be a little more sophisticated, will use chunks of beef.”

Curtis countered: “If you’re just opening up a jar and adding ground beef, that’s spaghetti sauce. That’s not the same as a Dynamite.”

BRING YOUR SANDWICH GAME

It’s not too late to sign up to compete in the Aug. 23 cook-off in Madison. And now the town’s home cooks have some extra incentive. Backyard Farms, the area’s largest employer, is sponsoring the contest and, as of Monday, started dropping off free tomatoes at the town office for contestants to pick up. The rules say that all entries must be made with Backyard Farm tomatoes.

Later this week, DeSanctis will begin working on a big batch of Dynamites for his best friend’s daughter’s wedding. When DeSanctis moved back to Madison from Florida last year, that friend, Jimmy Pinkham, gave him a place to live. Pinkham’s daughter, Morgan, was ecstatic because she knew with DeSanctis back in town, she’d be able to get a real Dynamite sandwich again.

“It’s a classic for me,” Morgan Pinkham said. “Growing up it was always the ‘DeSanctis Dynamites.’ ”

Pinkham is serving many different dishes to her guests on her wedding day Saturday, but she’s thrilled that DeSanctis agreed to make the Dynamites because “I don’t want it to be a stuck-up, stuffy wedding.”

“No one can make them like Steve,” she said. “I’ve tried a lot of different varieties. I don’t know what he does. He has a secret that he’s not sharing.”

DeSanctis planned to make the sauce for the wedding Dynamites on Thursday and the vegetables and meatballs on Friday.

“You don’t just whip up a batch of Dynamites,” DeSanctis said. “This is not fast-food Italian. My sauce cooks for at least six-and-a-half hours. That’s just the marinara sauce. The vegetables, they cook for another four-and-a-half to five hours, until I get it to the texture that I want.”

He typically makes a gallon of sauce and 150 meatballs per batch.

DeSanctis has shared the recipe with only one person outside of the family – a close friend who is “an old cook.” He suspects that “before I go” he will give it to others, because “I know that my dad would not want this to die. He wouldn’t give out the recipe because he had three sons.” DeSanctis doesn’t have any children.

“But before I go,” he said, “there will be a few people who have it.”

Dynamite.

Meredith Goad can be contacted at 791-6332 or at:

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