Welcome to the September edition of Cucina Conversations! This month, we are celebrating our online roundtable’s first birthday. Our monthly posts are a blogging commitment I look forward to because we come together virtually to share different recipes around a common theme. It’s the next best thing to all of us being together in person discussing, cooking, and eating Italian food. Due to a busy summer teaching cooking classes at the Italian Cultural and Community Center, and some circumstances out of my control, I had to skip writing my Cucina Conversations posts for the months of June, July, and August, so it’s especially nice to be back to writing these posts again. We are currently planning our 2017-2018 editorial calendar to bring you another year of delicious, regional Italian recipes, and we will continue to center each of our recipes around a common theme. We’ve come up with some fun and interesting themes so far!
This month, our theme is la merenda (snacks), quite possibly my most favorite way to eat. Ever since I was a little girl, I have been a snacker, grazing on this and that throughout the day. I have always loved variety in my eating, and la merenda always satisfies my appetite between meals. My contribution this month is one of my preferred Italian snacks: tramezzini da bar (bar sandwiches). Bars in Italy are not the same as bars in the United States. While many have a selection of alcoholic beverages, the bar in Italy is more like a coffee shop. It’s the place where Italians get their morning caffè, a glass of spremuta d’arancia (freshly squeezed orange juice), and a cornetto (sweet croissant) for breakfast. Bars are also the locale where you can stop in mid-afternoon or early evening for a soda, an aperitivo, and a tramezzino, among other light fare.
There are varying theories about the origins of tramezzini. One theory states that the sandwiches can be traced back to January 1926 at Cafè Mulassano in Torino, where then-owners Onorino and Angela Nebiolo took pan carrè (toasting bread) and stuffed two slices with a variety of delicious fillings such as cheese, fish, sauces, and meats. Back then, tramezzini were called paninetto (“little sandwich”). When the Italian writer Gabriele D’Annunzio (a rather infamous character) came to Cafè Mulassano for an aperitivo and a paninetto, he liked the sandwiches so much, he ordered another round, but called them tramezzini because they reminded him of the tramezze (partition walls) of his home in the country. Another theory dates the tramezzino to post-WWII Italy, when American influence began seeping into Italian society. WWII left much of Italy in poverty and American sliced white bread, called pane bianco, became sustenance for many. As the years passed, Italians continued to use the soft, white slices but transformed them into the triangular delicacies you still find today, filled with quintessentially Italian ingredients and fillings. The tramezzino was no longer a poverty food, but a popular, affordable, and delicious way to enjoy a quick snack or lunch.
While a sandwich in America can often be eaten “on the go” without anyone batting an eyelash, in Italy, tramezzini–portable as they seem–are not considered “to go” food. In his entertaining and informative book, Delizia: The Epic History of Italians and Their Food, John Dickie explains:
Italians also find it distressing that Americans eat on the move. In Italy, ice cream is the only thing that can be enjoyed absolutely legitimately while walking, but even then the cone should be wrapped in a napkin, with another napkin ready to dab at the mouth, and the maximum permitted speed is a gentle amble. …But consuming these ready-to-go delights is an experience to be savored, an experience worth framing with rules. Hence the napkin etiquette: skin and food should not come into contact. Hence also the fact that Italians eat things like panini and tramezzini (rolls and little crustless sandwiches) either standing at a counter, or perched on a stool by a shelf. To do anything as purposeful as walking at the same time would be disrespectful to the understated artistry of the cook, and it would cross the line that distinguishes eating from mere feeding.
It may sound dramatic to liken the making of tramezzini to artistry, but you’ll have to travel to Italy, step into a bar, and taste an assortment of these unassuming sandwiches to understand. Italians value the quality of every ingredient they cook with, and any establishment worth its salt takes great care in the preparation of its offerings, even if the offerings are as simple and basic as sandwiches. Any reputable bar will make their tramezzini fresh daily and on the premises to ensure the best quality and flavor. It doesn’t stop there: the sandwiches are then carefully and artfully arranged on trays and partially covered with a tea towel (long side peeking out to see the fillings) to keep them from drying out. Standing in front of a pristine glass case filled with rows of tramezzini is an experience unto itself–even before eating them! When I’m not in Italy and can’t get my favorite merenda fix at a local bar, I often make tramezzini in my own kitchen. It’s certainly not as dreamy as seeking out a bar down a quiet Italian side street, but like a good Italian, I take care with the ingredients I put between the two slices of bread, and I have managed to bring one of my favorite Italian snacks into my American kitchen any time I have a craving.
Since making tramezzini is what Italians call alla tua fantasia (up to your imagination), there isn’t a set recipe, so below I am sharing tips on how to assemble the sandwiches, as well as a variety of ideas for fillings. My Cucina Conversations friends have a mouthwatering line-up of recipes for this month’s merenda theme. Carmen is featuring pizzette montanare, bite-size, fried Neopolitan-style pizzas; Francesca made one of my very favorite Roman snacks, pizza bianca; Marialuisa is featuring a vegetable charcoal sandwich; Lisa prepared pasticiotti, sweet cream-filled pastries; Rosemarie made amaretti morbidi, soft almond-flavored cookies; and Daniela is featuring pan mieno, sweet, snack-size cakes from Lombardia. It’s a delicious selection to satisfy both sweet and savory palates!
Thank you for reading and commenting on our Cucina Conversations posts this past year. We are all looking forward to bringing you another year of traditional, regional Italian recipes.
The array of fillings you can sandwich between two thin slices of bread is up to your imagination, and attention to some details in assembling the tramezzini will ensure a sandwich with well-balanced flavors and textures.
- White or whole wheat thin sandwich bread (pan carrè), crusts cut off
- Butter, mayonnaise, cream cheese, or savory sandwich spread of your choice (make sure the condiment you use pairs well with the meats/cheeses you are using)
- Use thinly sliced white or whole wheat sandwich bread, crusts cut off neatly.
- Use a small amount of butter, mayonnaise (or other savory condiment) and spread it thinly onto each slice all the way to the edges. This will prevent the sandwiches from drying out.
- Keep it simple: limit the amount of ingredients in the sandwich to 2-3 foods
- All salumi (deli meats) and cheeses should be very thinly sliced.
- Use no more than 2 slices of deli meat and cheese per sandwich.
- Use lettuce and tomato sparingly and try to keep them from poking out the edges of the sandwich.
- Amplify the flavor of the tramezzini with modest amounts of capers, giardiniera, pickles, olives, or onions.
- If making the tramezzini in advance, place them on a baking sheet in one layer and place a layer of damp paper towels (wrung out well) on top of the sandwiches. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 day. Bring to room temperature before serving.
Tramezzini Filling Ideas
- Tuna salad + mayonnaise + lettuce + sliced hard boiled egg
- Chicken Salad + mayonnaise + lettuce + thinly sliced tomato
- Smoked salmon + cream cheese + capers + thinly sliced red onion
- Cooked ham + mayonnaise + cornichons +lettuce + Provolone cheese
- Prosciutto + butter + arugula
- Tomato + mozzarella + basil
- Shrimp salad + mayonnaise + arugula
- Grilled vegetables (thinly sliced)