Don’t blame us if it seems like all we write about these days are Reubens, tuna melts, muffulettas, and Cubanos. It’s all these highly trained and super-talented chefs trapped in the bodies of humble sandwich-makers who continue to be obsessed with the damn things. Take for instance Stuzzicheria’s Paul Di Bari, who opens his Sicilian-inspired sandwich shop Pane Panelle this week. “I’ve always been passionate about sandwiches,” he says with a dreamy look in his eye. “Even when I was a kid working in a deli in New Jersey, I wanted to have a shop.” As of lunchtime tomorrow, he will. (Actually, Pane Panelle is not so much a shop as it is a tiny corner of Stuzzicheria proper with its own entrance.)
As the name suggests, the main attraction at Pane Panelle is the magnificent and seldom-seen chickpea-flour-fritter sandwich with fresh ricotta, caciocavallo cheese, and a sprinkling of pecorino that Di Bari perfected at the defunct Bar Stuzzichini. Also on offer are a meatball hero, a muffuletta, and, in what ought to be designated as the crazy-genius section of the menu, two takes on the headliner: the melanzane e panelle (fried eggplant, tomato sauce, those aforementioned chickpea fritters, a slice of mortadella, and pecorino) and the panelle parm (chickpea fritters, mozzarella, and tomato sauce).
The sandwich Di Bari is most excited about, though, is his “vastedda linguetta.” As every Sicilian street-snack aficionado knows, vastedda is cow spleen often served with ricotta and caciocavallo cheese on a sesame-seed bun. Di Bari discovered the sandwich on a trip to Palermo, and it’s not too much to say that it made an impression. “It was one of the greatest things I’ve ever had in my life, and I’m not even an organ-meat type of guy.” Still, Tribeca is not Palermo, and spleen is a tough sell even among the stoutest of offal enthusiasts, so Di Bari has taken the liberty of substituting the more user-friendly tongue (poached in stock and sauteed in lard).
Whether his target demo — the time-pressed office workers in the surrounding neighborhood — go for his reimagined vastedda remains to be seen, but Di Bari sees potential in the concept, and even ponders a fleet of focaccerias extending throughout the city. And why not? Vastedda stands do big business in Palermo, he says. “They’re like hot dog carts here ... it’s, like, normal.”