Monday, March 12, 2012

Two slices of bread packed with jargon – the sandwich

A couple of days back, in an online conversation with one of my favourite blogger’s (AKA Jane Random:, I was reminded of the subtle differences in the English language posed by the Atlantic divide. The specific topic of conversation, on this occasion, was sugar – specifically, caster sugar. My fellow blogger, Jane, was momentarily baffled. After a little research I discovered that the equivalent, for anyone that lives State side, is Superfine Sugar – but not powdered, which, incidentally, we call ‘icing’ sugar.

This brief bi-lingual tête-à-tête got me thinking of the days when I worked as a short order cook on New Jersey’s boardwalks and, a couple of years later, as a grill man in the city of Brotherly Love, Philadelphia. At the time, as it happens, I was sitting by my computer working my way through a double-decker sarnie – put another way, I was eating a sandwich. It brought to mind an occasion back in Philly. I was standing behind the counter in the early afternoon daydreaming when one of the regulars came in and asked me for his usual ‘chompie’ with extra everything. It took a few seconds before reality dawned and I managed mentally to translate the request. He was in fact asking for a hoagie, extra mushrooms, extra onions and extra cheese.

The lexicon that has developed around what is essentially two pieces of bread stuffed with some form of filling is amazing. The sandwich goes by many names. Years back in Belfast, when I was younger, if my mother asked if I wanted a sanger, a sarnie, a toastie or a butty, I had a fairly clear idea what was being offered. This colloquialism would likely be lost in translation if I crossed the Atlantic. And likewise, newcomers to the States require a little orientation before they can capably navigate the subtle differences between, among many others, a hoagie, a sub, a submarine, a torpedo, a po’boy, a grinder, a Dagwood, a club and a Hero – let alone the range of each on offer.         

What we are talking about is essentially two (or more) pieces of bread either side of a filling – barring, of course, the open sandwich which, in my opinion, is missing the point! Reading up on this subject I discovered that the origin of the ‘sandwich’ is attributed to John Montagu, the 4th Earl of Sandwich, who, back in the 1760s is said to have asked for cold meats between bread to avoid having to leave the gaming table. Others noticed and would subsequently say ‘I’ll have the same as Sandwich’.  

What does all this have to do with Mario’s Italian Kitchen, you might well ask? I love sandwiches and having lived in both the UK and the U.S, two countries that afford the sandwich its due respect, I’ve been forever spoiled. The problem is that the Italians are not nearly as enamoured as I am by Montagu’s ground breaking invention. As far as sandwiches are concerned, in Italy, more often than not, you are faced with a somewhat derisory and unexciting choice between either a panino (denoting all kinds of bread roll stuffed) or a tramezzo (sliced bread, again stuffed and most often toasted). The natural evolution of the sandwich seems to have stagnated here and, in comparison to English speaking countries, we remain fixed somewhere in the dark ages.

This has much to do with the fact that a fast lunch at the bar was traditionally eschewed by Italians in preference for a long, leisurely lunch in a local trattoria or back at home with the family. In the province’s this is still very much the case. The choice of sandwich on offer in the local bars seldom extends beyond a panino stuffed begrudgingly with a slice or two of mortadella or a panino stuffed with a slice of cheese (for the vegetarian). And if you want mayonnaise, let alone any other condiment, more likely you will have to ask. But asking doesn’t necessarily mean you will get. Of course, I’m not knocking the simple panino. It has its place and, made with one of the country’s many wonderful cured meats, it is, no question, a great snack. But sometimes less is not more, it’s just that, less.

Of course there are sandwich hotspots scattered throughout the country that break the rule – particularly in the cities where bars cater to new and developing work ethics along with tourists. But back here in the province’s, for someone who dreams of Philly cheese steaks with caramelised (that’s caramelized if you are American) onions, a double-decker club with extra bacon, turkey and crisp lettuce or a Reubens packed high with corned beef and extra kraut on sourdough, the choice here, I have to say, remains most unsatisfactory. It shouldn’t be so. In fact, given the combination of Italian culinary inventiveness and the superb choice of fresh ingredients on our doorstep, Italy should lead the world in the sandwich stakes. The problem is one of culture. Italians will without hesitation sit down to an enviable antipasto of mixed cured meats, local cheeses and fresh or preserved vegetables, but the bread will remain on the sideline, eaten apart. Few dare imagine, let alone take the next step – cut that panino in half and shove the antipasto in between. So, for the time being, I’m forced to make my own sandwich, wrap it to go and carry it around the corner to the bar with me. Here’s one of my personal favourites – and I’ve even invented a new name for it!

Mario’s Mediterranean Ciabatta ‘sandwichino’

Serves 2

2 ciabatta bread rolls
100g thinly sliced chicken breast
100g Parma ham
2 boiled eggs, sliced
1 small red onion, thinly sliced
A handful of leaves of red radicchio, shredded
2 artichoke hearts, thinly sliced
1 roasted sweet red pepper, peeled and cut into strips
A few sundried tomatoes in olive oil, chopped into small pieces
75g quartirolo cheese or feta
Extra virgin olive oil
Dried oregano
Freshly ground black pepper

Cut the ciabatta rolls in half lengthways. If preferred, you can toast the bread. I generally only do so if the bread is not at its freshest. Butter the base with a thin layer of mayonnaise and then add a few slices of Parma ham and chicken breast. Arrange a bed of red onion and some red radicchio. Top with the sliced egg, artichoke hearts, red pepper and sundried tomatoes. Crumble the quartirolo or feta cheese over the top. Drizzle with plenty of extra virgin olive oil and then sprinkle over the oregano and ground black pepper. (I don’t add any additional salt as the cheese is already salty. However this is just a question of taste.) Place the top of the bread roll over the sandwich stuffing and press down gently. The sandwich is ready to eat at this point. However, I find that it improves when wrapped tightly in aluminium foil and allowed to rest in the fridge for a couple of hours. In this way the juices from the sundried tomatoes and peppers mix through the ingredients and the sandwich binds together. This is a great sandwich to take on a long drive or on a picnic.  


  1. I'm Jane's mom. Actually when I was growing up my mother (born in 1907) called superfine sugar, Caster sugar. I remember her saying it often. Maybe it was lost as the years went on.

  2. Hi Jane's Mom. That's really interesting. I think you are right. I think a lot of old English has been Americanized with words being either lost, adapted or newly invented. Thanks for looking in. I hope you like the site!

  3. You had me at roasted red pepper! Yum! How delicious does that look!

  4. When we lived in Bella Napoli and traveled around the country we would look forward in great anticipation for lunch, a stop a the paneria and the salumeria tp buy fresh bread and the local salami and cheese. I thought the Italian sandwich was wonderful and that all the "stuffings" of the Hero, Grinder, etc. were just surplusage. But I had to carry a tube of mustard in my glove compartment because I could never find any in the shops.

    Now as to meals which were lacking in Italy....don't get me started on the "Continental Breakfast".

  5. The 'continental breakfast' - you've just given inspiration for one of my next blogs. And yes, at times there is nothing like the simplicity of a crusty loaf of ciabatta bread, split down the middle and stuffed with freshly sliced local salami. But think about what else we have on offer here - sweet roasted peppers, plump capers, grilled artichokes, great olives, a dozen varieties of tomato, wonderful crisp salads and surely we can come up with something that takes advantage of this? And mustard would be nice too!

  6. Another word to add to the lexicon-where I come from, a sandwich on a longer roll is called a "wedge"; no clue where that came from. I love your sandwich combination - sort of an Italian take on a Dagwood sandwich (from the Blondie comic strip)- a Dagwoodino!

  7. A 'wedge'? That's great, I never heard of that one before! A Dagwoodino and a Sandwichino - I love it! Thanks for dropping in.

  8. I love your sandwichino! Just gorgeous. One of the difficulties that I have found living in Italy, is that I am perfectly happy just to have a sandwich for lunch, rather than a cooked lunch. Much easier, and therefore leaving more choices when dinner comes around!

  9. That's true Cathy. The culture traditionally here is to sit down to a complete meal at lunchtime. Sometimes you just want something quick and simple - and the sandwich is so versatile.