The Simplicity of the Sandwich

In early November, 2011 I was winding down on my 2 year tour of Italy while working for the US Navy.  I had been incredibly fortunate to live in the comfortable and small city of Pozzuoli, just next to Naples.  As much as I loved it and the cafe I lived above, it was my last weekend in Italy and I decided not to stay home sulking about my impending departure and all I was leaving behind (besides the many friends and memories, the luscious mozzarella di bufala and real Neapolitan pizza).  Instead, I made a break for it and headed north to be with who I was most sad to leave behind, and relax as best as possible.

In some respects Tuscany reminds me a lot of Upstate NY, where I grew up.  The hills, trees, and farms look similar enough from a distance.  The same cannot be said for the Renaissance masterpiece and hub of Tuscany, Florence, or any of the idyllic villages or medieval cities that dot the region.  For most of us those are reminders of a bygone era and the jolt needed to remember…you’re not in NY.  You’re in Italy.  The plentiful rolling green hills and country roads are ideal for escaping the crowded chaos found in Naples, Rome, and even Florence.  At the height of tourist season you’re more likely to walk down the street and hear every language but Italian, or walk into a restaurant whose astute hosts can tell you don’t speak Italian before you say a word (many can even guess what you do speak as well).  Looking out at those hills from the top of Fiesole, a neighbor and overlook to Florence, I uncovered the complete understanding and appreciation for Italian cuisine perfectly summing up the previous two years.  The experience happened while I was eating of all things…a sandwich.  Oh, what a sandwich.

Italian sandwiches can sometimes make a bad first impression on American tourists.  Your taste for home is a hard thing to forget and travel can be exhausting.  When you’re tired, in a rush, aren’t up for a new culinary experience, or get exasperated from the inability to communicate, you reach for what’s comfortable and recognizable.  In America we have a practical sandwich fetish.  Regions of the US each have their version of ultimate sandwiches, piled high with meats, cheeses, dressings, flavored mayonnaise, pickled vegetables, on your favorite style of bread.  Sometimes toasted, grilled, pressed.  Dagwoods, heroes, hoagies, wedges, grinders-those only cover the North East!  The theme across the board for the overwhelming majority of American palates-not just sandwiches-is “bigger is better” and “if two is good three is great”.  Italian sensibility is quite the opposite.  So on that day, when the exasperated traveler is reaching for a simple sandwich there is nothing but disappointment or bewilderment when they get bread, a thin slice or two of meat and maybe cheese.  Two layers?  Two layers with a combined thickness less than half that of the turkey portion in a classic Dagwood?  That is what you’re likely to see across Italy.  Simple sandwiches with fewer ingredients and less of them.  Of course, as the quality of the ingredients falls, the simplicity is more quickly targeted.  Breads become less satisfying as they’re stamped out like our famous Wonder loaf.  Factory farmed livestock is needed to feed the demand-our demand-for the product.  That is when you end up with a sad sandwich of mediocre bread and generic salami.  Which is very easily found in most train stations or airports.  Where most tourists end up.

As my girlfriend and I walked into Fiesole, it was blustery with a slight chill in the air.  The rumble of our stomachs seemed to echo the bells in the church.  We’d skipped lunch due to our late start and were beginning to feel it, but didn’t want too much of a meal so close to dinner.  Fortunately there was a little food truck with a man preparing to pack up for the day.  There wasn’t a wide assortment of salami, or prosciutti to choose from, just one of each.  You could say, as was said in The Blues Brothers, “they had both kinds”.  We would take two panini and two bottles of water.  Despite my elementary ability to converse in Italian, it was 100% Neapolitan dialect and accent-which is sometimes hardly even regarded as Italian outside Naples.  My New York twist on it didn’t help matters.  This fellow was speaking thick, old-man Florentine.  Any chit-chat wasn’t meant to be.  I wanted the sandwich, he probably wanted to go home.  We resorted to pointing.  I watched as he pulled two crusty loaves of bread from a paper bag splitting them with a knife down the middle.  Then, with the same knife hacking, not really slicing, two thick pieces of the salami.  They actually broke in half while folding as he pressed the knife down.  He looked up and said “finocchiona” with a half shrug and a smile as he placed the slices in the bread.  Quickly wrapped in paper then we were off.  I’d recognized finocchiona from an antipasto platter I’d eaten some time previously but this was so different than that.  It was softer, almost crumbly; the coarse, fatty grind of the fennel flavored filling had an amazing silky texture as I chewed.  It was really good salami.  The bread smelled yeasty and delicious.  It was the kind of sandwich you imagine the first sandwich being created from.  Meat and bread, nothing more.

In my amazement I didn’t want anything else in that moment.  That was when I realized the method to the madness.  The utter simplicity behind letting two products of superior quality not be hidden in a maze of other flavors.  It was as perfect a sandwich as you could imagine and as plain as most would fear.  My girlfriend and I walked to the top of the hill watching the sunset in silence, eating our perfect sandwiches.  Since then I have learned the version of finnochiona I’d tasted was a fresher variety called sbriciolona.  Characterized by the softness and coarser grind of the heavily fennel laced filling, it is common to Tuscany and a delicacy in the case of your salumeria should you be lucky enough to find it near you.

The simplicity of that sandwich applies directly to the thought behind so much of Italian cuisine: don’t mess with the ingredients.  Let them be.  Be mindful and conscious of what goes into your food and you’ll appreciate it more.  That mentality is largely born out of the poverty endured throughout Italy for so long (“la cucina povera” is so often used to describe Italian cuisine), but in our age of excess I think it is a better one to have than “bigger is better”.  How about “less is more”?