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Object of Desire: The sandwich

March 16, 2012 |  1:46 pm

Roma.
You are in line at Roma Deli, because that is where you go in Pasadena when you are in need of prosciutto, fresh mozzarella or pecorino di Sardo, and the woman in front of you has just ordered a sandwich. Maybe you have been to Roma a hundred times in your life, because the need for pecorino knows no season, and maybe, for some reason, you've never known about the sandwich. Whenever you stop by the deli counter, Rosario Mazzeo, who has been at Roma since the early 1950s (and whom everyone calls Ross), is too busy telling you about the smoked fresh mozzarella he just started bringing in, or trying to persuade you that the prosciutto from San Daniele is better than the prosciutto from Parma, or reaching under the counter to pull up a bottle of the olive oil his brother just sent him from Sicily.

"Only for salads; not for cooking," he says. "Do you hear me? Do you hear me?"

The meaning of the look in his eyes is unmistakable. His brother grew this oil. It is from trees Mazzeo loves. It is to be respected.

So we watch him make the sandwich with great interest. He cuts open an Italian roll, and he dribbles a few drops of olive oil on each surface. An assistant hands him in quick order hunks of provolone, mortadella, spiced coppa and salami. Mazzeo runs each through the slicer and smooths the meats onto the roll. He wraps it in butcher paper. The routine has taken about 30 seconds. "You're making carbonara tonight,'' Mazzeo says. "Get the guanciale. Better."

You mention that you have never noticed the sandwiches.

"Sandwich," says Mazzeo. "Only one kind. I make 120 of them a day -- sometimes 200. Do you want one? Best sandwich you ever had."

Mazzeo performs his ballet again, this time just for you. The roll is cottony soft, you notice,  and the oil is one he once suggested when you told him you were frying artichokes. He applies neither vegetables, nor dressing, nor giardiniera; not even salt and pepper -- this is not a White House Special from the White House in Atlantic City or even a Godmother from Bay Cities in Santa Monica. You toss the wrapped sandwich into your basket and try to get the woman at the cash register to slip you a little extra basil from the impossibly fragrant stash she keeps behind the counter.

A while later, you remember the sandwich you have sitting on your kitchen counter, and you carve off a few inches for a snack. The undistinguished cold cuts have mingled into something pretty grand in the last few hours, a shimmering minor chord in the key of pork; the bitterness of the oil turns out to be all the sauce you need. The bread has maintained its thin, crisp crust, and the bland softness supports the richness of the meats in a way that an exquisitely crafted sourdough probably would not. It is, in its way, a perfect sandwich. It is the only one Mazzeo needs.

918 N. Lake Avenue, Pasadena  (626) 797-7748.

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 -- Jonathan Gold

Photo credit: Jonathan Gold / Los Angeles Times

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