California Sandwiches: A delicious gem in Downsview

Tucked away in an industrial mall at the north-west corner of Sheppard Ave. W. and Chesswood Drive is California Sandwiches where they make the best hot Italian veal sandwiches on this side of mama’s kitchen.

It’s a family business that reaches back into the history of Toronto and the heart of little Italy.  In 1969 Christina and Giuseppe Papa opened a small grocery store at 244 Claremont Avenue between College St. and Dundas St. -a block away from where I grew up on Clinton Street. It was a typical mid-block grocery store that served the local neighbourhood.

Their timing couldn’t have been worse.   The area’s first supermarket, the Power Store, had just opened on Bloor Street and as more people bought cars and refrigerators their shopping patterns changed.  The local mid-block grocery was dead.  With seven kids to feed they had to do something to survive.   The answer came out of Signora Papa’s kitchen.  It was hot juicy Italian veal sandwich with a ‘to die for’ Sunday sauce that nobody could resist.

They began making the sandwiches at the rear of the store.  In the early days, Gina Severino, one of the five daughters (who now operates a California Sandwich shop in Woodbridge) remembers her brother hustling orders for sandwiches in pool rooms and at construction sites which she helped delivered on her bicycle.

As the fame of the sandwiches spread, deliveries expanded with orders from as far away as the downtown area.  California Sandwiches became a favorite of many Bay Street law firms. Toronto Council often ordered them when the meetings extended through the dinner break.

In 1993, two of the sisters, Mary and Yolanda open a second California Sandwich shop here in Downsview which has been dishing out sandwiches: veal, chicken, steak, smothered in mama’s sauce, onions cheese and mushrooms, since that time.

Before she died, their mother made them promise that the business would never be franchised.  There are now 12 California Sandwich shops each one owned by a different member of the family.  Everyone has their own unique décor but what they all have in common is the family recipe and a devotion to quality.

So how is a California sandwich different from any other sandwich?  Everything is made to order, fresh and from scratch.   It doesn’t sit there waiting for you like a burger in a fast food chain:  Each sandwich is made to your specs.  You can order your sandwiches hot (spicy), medium, or sweet with a side of olives, rush it to your table and wash it down with a bottle of pop or an ice cold beer. Enjoy!

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