L at First Ave.; F, V at Lower East Side-Second Ave.
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If a pizza-dough sandwich is made in a shop where there’s no pizza oven, is it a panuozzo? That was the philosophical thought puzzle that presented itself to the Underground Gourmet after a visit to San Matteo Panuozzo, a tiny new takeout spot on St. Marks Place. If you’re up on the U.G. archives, you might recall that a panuozzo is like a supersize panino. It’s made from pizza dough that’s shaped into a loaf, tossed into the oven, fished out, sliced lengthwise, layered with various fillings, then shoveled back into the oven for a minute or so to allow all the flavors to meld. It’s said to have originated in Gragnano, outside of Naples, and along with an increase in the demand for tailors who specialize in taking out the waistbands of pants, the panuozzo was an inevitable consequence of the Neapolitan pizza boom of recent years.
Similarly styled pizza-dough sandwiches going under various aliases may be found on the menus at Kesté, Don Antonio by Starita, La Montanara, and Naples 45, but perhaps no one has done more to popularize the Southern Italian specialty than San Matteo, the snug pizzeria that opened about a year and a half ago on the Upper East Side. To capitalize on the sandwich’s crusty appeal, San Matteo’s owners recently transplanted the concept to the East Village, where they’ve dedicated an entire shop to it. Furnished with mementos of the owners’ Campanian hometown, Salerno (not Gragnano, but close enough), and sundry Italian imports arrayed on the shelves, San Matteo Panuozzo has everything you’d expect in a pizza-dough-sandwich shop. Except, that is, the pizza oven. The wood-fired bread, you see, is baked fresh daily uptown, then delivered to the East Village, where it’s split open and assembled to order, then run through a deluxe-model conveyor-belt toaster of the type you see in high-volume delis that traffic in toasted bagels. Though less atmospheric, the method gets the job done, crisping up the loaf’s edges and reviving the flavorful bread’s moist and creamy crumb. It sounds weird, but the texture reminds us a little of a good English muffin, and as English-muffin fans, that’s meant as a compliment.
Of the eleven panuozzo combinations available, we’re partial to the Di Bartolomei, which layers paper-thin slices of roast pork with fresh mozzarella and peppery arugula to delicious effect, and the big-flavored Alla Pancetta, which mingles a salty dry-cured and rolled version of the Italian bacon with super-smoky buffalo mozzarella. The Mortadella e Melanzane (mortadella sausage, marinated eggplant, and the aforementioned smoked mozz) is pretty good too. In spite of the preponderance of pork, vegetarians aren’t regarded as a culinary subspecies. In fact, four meatless sandwiches riff on a mozzarella theme (housemade with eggplant and peppers; smoked buffalo mozzarella in an eggplant parm; truffle-oil-drizzled burrata; and a classic caprese).
These panuozzi are hefty and filling, although constructed in the minimalist Italian fashion, and served with an enthusiastic smile. To round out the experience, there’s gelato and tiramisu made on-premises, plus the sort of good Italian espresso that predates the Single-Origin Light-Roast Revolution. Altogether, the shop lends a welcome touch of European civility to a bar-glutted block, and advances Neapolitan-pizza culture, even absent the oven.Featured In
The New New New Pizzas (7/8/12)Ideal Meal
Di Bartolomei or Alla Pancetta panuozzo, pistachio gelato.