I was in a nostalgic mood, walking down this particular stretch of Houston from Allen to the very end, Mangin Place, for the last time. For four years, I have raced from the 2nd Avenue F to attend parent teacher conferences, concerts, and PTA meetings at Bard High School Early College, which my daughter graduated from last Thursday. So a few days before, I went to collect her cap and gown while she frolicked in the surf at Cape Cod with her grade school friends from PS 75. The whole of her public school life had condensed into a small dot, and I was feeling a little worn and blue.
But as happens in New York City, there is always something new to take you out of your old aches and frets. In my case it is usually a snack. Crossing Clinton I saw Tramezzini NYC, a small space with summery white exposed brick walls, two counters and a blackboard outside advertising iced coffee and Venetian sandwiches. In fact, Tramezzini stands for a particular kind of Venetian sandwich, made of soft olive oil bread—in this case, flown in from the Veneto. The bread is packed with Italian cheeses and meats or tuna and fresh vegetables, and—this is utterly important, with 5% olive-oil based mayonnaise as per the Venetian originals. I popped my head in and asked two diners how it was. They had just finished off one pork leg sandwich between them. “Delicious!” they said, “We’re definitely coming back.” I nodded to the co-owner, an affable Italian man in a black logo-d and baseball cap, who looked as young as my 21-year-old son, and said, “I’m coming back, too!”
So on my way home from BHSEC, burdened not only with the sadness of empty school halls in summer but also with cap and gown and a “swag bag,” I ordered half a “Parma affair” tramezzino, one with with 24 months aged Prosciutto Crudo di Parma, farmer’s market tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, balsamic glaze from Modena (the home of balsamic vinegar, and of the late opera star Luciano Pavorotti*), oregano and black pepper. For all the sandwiches, you have the option to have a half, in a cone ($7.00), which confused me, or a whole one ($11.00). The tuna or “tunno” ones sound luscious—sustainable steamed yellow fin tuna, in olive oil, pickled pearl onions, also doused in Balsamic vinegar, and that marvelous mayo.
As I was waiting I thumbed through my daughter’s yearbook, noting she was chosen as the "one most likely to start a cult and not realize it." All the time rap music was blasting at top volume. I walked over to the owner and asked if he could, perhaps, turn it down. Aside from being too loud, it just didn’t go with my idea of a Venetian experience. He readily agreed and then I noticed a stylish woman about my age wearing a bright Pucci-like dress and carrying a large Italian designer handbag. She took in my words or perhaps just the pained expression on my face and then seemed to take the owner to task. When she came back to her stool beside me at the counter, we looked each other in the eye with a recognition that surpasses ethnic, national or any other divides. Without needing to speak Italian, I understood she was the new owner’s proud mama—proud and, like me, a bit over-involved, as she fussed with the napkins, coffee cups and baskets of raw peanuts. Her desire for her son’s new venture to be successful was evident in her very stance, the nervous hover I recognized, and her touch was evident when my cardboard cone arrived in a metal Belgian frites holder along with a side of martini olives and ridged potato chips (plus more in the cone’s bottom, soggy from the sandwich). A purple flower dipped out of the cardboard cone, and my sandwich was wedged inside and pressed against a large, attractive, but improbable, slice of grapefruit. I thought: these are things his mother suggested.
Now to the tramezzini itself. No dainty English tea sandwich these! Because I’d ordered a half (toasted), I found myself holding something that was like a pita with the back missing, a messy affair. The innards, amply doused with Balsamic glaze, were surrounded by a circle of the stark white, smooth doughy bread, and it is this bread, subtly flavoured with olive oil, that truly makes the tramezzini unique. That, and the authenticity of the ingredients. The aged prosciutto di parma was a deep pink and almost a little gamey, while the mozzarella, studded with coarse black pepper, was so soft it seemed almost like burrata. Yet strangely as I was happily cramming cheese and pork and bread into my mouth I was overwhelmed by the scent of rosemary. I pried apart my sandwich. No rosemary there, just oregano. Then I noticed an aromatherapy diffuser next to the window, pumping out a rosemary mist. Again, I entreated the owner, “Excuse me. Why do you need this? Now everything smells like rosemary.” He told me that otherwise customers would smell fried onions cooking. The mother watched our exchange, hawk-like. I have a feeling the rosemary mister was also her idea. I told him that for customers, the smell of real food cooking was preferable to herbal mist, that the sandwich was really, really excellent, and I didn’t want anything to stand in its way. As I left my tip in the jar, I saw his mother talking to him in rapid, emotional Italian.
Sadly, I saw myself in her. Oh Mama mia. Unable to stand back from either my son or daughter as they embark on new ventures. And yet, I understood too, again without speaking the language, that this woman with the commanding gestures and concerned look, supported her son's new Venetian-Amerian venture totalmente.
309 E. Houston St.
*A fun memory of my Jewish mother who became, in middle age, totally infatuated with the tenor Luciano Pavorotti: On a trip to Italy with my father, they stopped in Modena, and at a train station she gripped the phone book dangling from a chain and tore out all the pages with the name “Pavorotti” in them!