A Tale of Two Panini

“Food had power. It could inspire, astonish, shock, excite, delight and impress. It had the power to please me . . .” ― Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

I was sick of eating bologna sandwiches in the fourth grade. I had eaten them most of the days that I had brought a packed lunch to school for the past three years, and I couldn’t stand it any longer. The salty, processed, circular slices of meat in between two soft, floppy pieces of white bread weren’t satisfying me anymore, and the sheer frequency I was eating them at made me dread lunch day by day. It got to the point where I told my parents, they agreed, and just like that, bologna was off my lunch menu.

The next eight years of my school lunches were what I consider a transition period. I cycled between different meats, cheeses, and breads for my sandwiches, and I was never fully satisfied. Any food from home was better than the cafeteria food, but I would have rather eaten pasta from a thermos or shaken a Tupperware container to mix my salad ingredients than eat yet another sandwich for lunch.

I’m not saying that my lunches need to consistently be four-star meals, but I believe I have the right to enjoy the food I eat. When I consume bland food, I feel uninspired and unsatisfied. If food truly had this power that Bourdain believed it to possess, I had not felt it in my lunch sandwiches--they gave me energy to survive through the rest of the day, and nothing more.

“Good food is very often, even most often, simple food.” ― Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

If there’s anything that I expected my year abroad to teach me, I would have never expected that I would find an appreciation for panini. And no, not the panini at Panera Bread, which I admittedly did enjoy some years ago. Freshly-made, locally-sourced, passionately-crafted, authentically-Italian panini.

A haberdashery-turned-paninoteca offers such panini. Named SandwiChic, the local trove sits five minutes walking distance from iconic monuments of Florence, such as the Galleria di Accademia and Il Duomo. A light bell will ring as you gently push open the door and are met with Italian men in white shirts, suspenders, and bowties taking and preparing orders behind the counter to your right, jazz playing loud enough to set the mood, but low enough to balance the action.

Bread and cheese toast together in the oven in harmony, the deli slicer makes an ostinato cutting meat back-and-forth, and the smooth spreading of various jams and creams adds to the flow, the added aromas syncopating and symphonizing. The first bite of your panino, as the schiacciata bread crackles and gives way to the pecorino, then cinnamon-pear jam, then sbriciolona salami, then in reverse until you bite through the other piece of bread, is the combination of all of these factors. The taste is profound and balanced. Not one specific flavor stands out; rather, they are all married--in between and including its two pieces of bread--to create a savory, umami flavor and a worthy experience.

You might think that I just wrote a love letter to an Italian sandwich--you’re not wrong. It speaks to the power of what food can do. SandwiChic proved to me that sandwiches could provide an enjoyable experience and inspire something deeper. Yet, above all, my trips to SandwiChic helped me to establish Florence at home and make me feel like I belonged. And I did.

“Your body is not a temple, it's an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.” ― Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

As I pry open the Styrofoam container, a wave of heat rushes at me from the pile of fries and the massive sandwich, split in two, contained within. I pick up one half of the sandwich and my eyes widen. A heaping of bacon, steak, and chicken cutlet sits, smothered in barbeque sauce, in between two hulking pieces of bread, true to what was on the menu for the Superman sandwich at Campus Deli.

I sit back, chewing my first bite, all the flavors marinating in my mouth. The barbeque sauce is overpowering, from the chicken to the crust of the bread. The resulting product is imbalanced, yet savory---and oddly satisfying. I could have ordered an Italian sub or something lighter, but this is the experience I asked for, and I surely did get it. At the same time, I feel like I’m missing something. I know Campus Deli has a big reputation among my peers, but for a seemingly typical deli across the street from Marist, I can’t understand why.

My curiosity brings me back a few nights later, to sit in on the action as customers pass through and to speak with the owner, leaving no stone unturned. He describes operating Campus Deli: the freshly-prepared food, the security cameras getting footage of the store from every angle, the stainless steel counters he’d gotten to renovate the place and protected with a sleek plastic film. The boss’s operation of the deli is anything but the main point, however. With every time the door opens, he turns in his chair to see exactly who is entering. He greets a good number of his customers, most of whom are Marist students or alumni, asking them how their day is going and what they are planning to do that night. And suddenly, I understand.

I can tell that the owner and the business that surrounds him really cares about their customers. Campus Deli cares to prepare its food freshly, and to the best of its ability, for its customers every time, even if they have to wait an hour for their food after a night at the bar. Campus Deli cares that its customers are making smart decisions; its “Smile, you’re on camera” signs deter people from making harmful decisions. Campus Deli cares to provide the best business that it possibly can---and it shows. I make sure to tell the boss that several times over the hour that I spent at the deli, and thank him for the interview before leaving.

The hallowed hours of 1am to 4am, those being the hours where the store becomes packed with students coming back from the bar, see the store busy at maximum capacity. Dozens of customers at a time wait on late-night snacks. The boss shows me video from the previous night. True to legend, customers wait in the store for their food for at least a half-hour each. A synergy is echoing through the video of the store: customers calmly conversing with each other as their BOBOs sizzle on the grill. It is a different sort of harmony than that of the SandwiChic artisans, but an inspiring harmony that spurns the power of food.The power to bring us together and energize us, always, toward reaching for greatness.

Matthew Spadaccini Comment