An English nobleman may have invented the sandwich, but the Italians -- as those Mulberry Street souvenir T-shirts so charmingly boast -- Do It Better. Six-foot heros, of course, don't count. Nor do hoagies, submarines, torpedoes, or any other sandwich emphasizing size over substance. Traditional Italian sandwiches, as opposed to their Italian-American cousins, are subtler, more sophisticated, usually between-meal snacks, meant to be eaten on the run or at the bar, with a quick espresso or glass of wine. In fact, that's why many Italian sandwich names end in diminutives (panini, cicchetti, tramezzini, bruschetta, piadina), which, for our purposes, all translate loosely into a little something. But in a culture that takes pleasure, especially gastronomic pleasure, so seriously, a little something ends up being pretty major. Even in instances where the sandwich proportions match the maker's ambitions, the same rules apply: The bread must be stellar, either home-baked or procured from a specialist. The fillings must be fresh and flavorful enough so that a little goes a long way. When it comes to combinations, keep it simple. Compose; don't cram. Drizzle; don't douse. And, since taste begins with the eye, presentation counts. Here, then, our favorite Italian-sandwich maestros and their most inspired creations.
'ino (21 Bedford Street; 989-5769)
We love the fact that we can have delicious made-to-order Italian sandwiches from dawn till way past dusk at 'ino, the Village hangout that is, depending on your mood and appetite, either a wine bar with excellent food or a café with a smart, offbeat wine list. The brainchild of downtown restaurant veterans Jason Denton (former manager at Pó) and his fiancée, Jennifer Gripenberg (ex-hostess at Liam), who were inspired by the food they discovered on a visit to Monterosso, 'ino takes its name from panino, the house sandwich. With eight tables and seven bar stools, this cozily appointed sliver of a room is too small to merit the whole word. But the menu is relatively extensive, a tribute to the lengths a creative chef -- even one without a kitchen -- can go to with bread. The neighboring Blue Ribbon Bakery supplies 'ino's Pullman loaves, ciabatta rolls, and baguettes, the crusty, chewy basis for a litany of ingeniously simple sandwiches that stand out for their impeccable freshness and amplified flavors. Denton's peperonata; his basil, black-olive, and sun-dried-tomato pestos; and his tapenade and caponata add another dimension to classic combinations, many of which can be eaten like tapas. It might be easiest to appreciate 'ino's charms at brunch, when natural light fills the room; sip perfect fresh-squeezed OJ or strong espresso and sample the scrambled-egg-and-Fontina bruschetta with asparagus or an Italian BLT with lemon mayo, arugula, and pancetta ($9 prix fixe). Come back later in the day for a glass of wine and tramezzini, those elegant crustless Venetian "tea" sandwiches eaten at Italian bacaris (try the tuna with black-olive pesto or the bresaola with arugula and grana; all $6), or to nibble on some bruschetta topped with ricotta fresca and oven-roasted tomato or braised fennel with tapenade (all $2). Denton and Gripenberg's bread obsession extends to dessert, which might be a hot, oozing chocolate-Nutella panino or the bruschetta riff on strawberry shortcake, heaped with berries and mascarpone.
Melampo Imported Foods (105 Sullivan Street; 334-9530)
Why, in an Italian-accented neighborhood like the south Village, teeming with congenial purveyors of all the makings of a spectacular lunch -- from hickory-smoked mozzarella at Joe's Dairy to rustic ciabatta loaves at Sullivan Street Bakery -- would a hungry passerby subject himself to emotional anguish and public humiliation for the sake of a sandwich? It depends, of course, on the sandwich. The panini masterworks at Melampo, run by the legendarily cranky Florentine Alessandro Gualandi, are so delectable they're worth enduring aloofness, mood swings, even the occasional temper tantrum. Sure, we know Gualandi has a soft side: He likes kids, and he occasionally throws a slice of cheese to a dog. But any acts of normalcy are overshadowed by the former waiter's outbursts, too easily induced by infractions against his house rules: Keep in a soldierly line, order by sandwich name, no unsanctioned substitutions, don't touch the merchandise unless you're absolutely committed to buying, don't talk loudly about politics, don't ask dumb questions. When so provoked, the temperamental sandwich-maker might answer an innocent if uninformed query like "What's sopressata?" with either a monosyllabic shrug, "Meat," or, worse, a pantomimed gesture of aggression like thrusting swordsmanlike the salami in question at the hapless interlocutor. But his bark -- and for that matter, his more typical stone-faced silence -- is worse than his bite and shouldn't scare first-timers away from what may well be a transcendent culinary experience. If you're willing to take your chances, order the "Pinocchio" (one of Gualandi's 30 or so flawlessly engineered designs, herolike in size but much more artfully crafted and carefully balanced in flavor and texture, around $6 to $10), and watch Gualandi quickly go to work, moving, slicing, spooning out condiments like a master sushi chef. He splits your choice -- one of the few you have -- of excellent fresh Italian breads (try the delicious crusty sfilatino baguette, worth the extra two bucks) in two and covers it with his own black-olive tapenade. He hand-slices several slabs of fresh mozzarella, slices top-notch sweet sopressata and prosciutto Calista Flockhart- thin, layers the meat and cheese lovingly over the bread, and spoons on his homemade sweet and vinegary red-and-yellow-pepper dressing. If you make it this far, pay the man, cash only, withdraw quietly, and savor your success at a bench in the pocket playground next door.
Ferdinando's Focacceria Ristorante (151 Union Street, Brooklyn; 718-855-1545)
Most of us think we know what focaccia is. But when we step into Ferdinando's Focacceria, the homey, nearly century-old Sicilian café on a preserved-in-time strip of Union Street in Carroll Gardens, we find no trace of the customary square of seasoned pizza bread. A focacceria, says Sicilian-born chef-owner Francesco Buffa in a catchy, singsongy accent, is where you'll find "any sandwich you make with bread, a hot, round shape." The name focacceria, in this sense, may come from the Palermitan street-food snack sometimes called focaccia but more commonly known as vastedda or guastedde, which is a soft, round bun filled with calf's spleen and cheese (sometimes caciocavallo, or "horse cheese"). It's no surprise that vastedda in any dialect or by any name -- including "spleen sandwich with horse cheese!" -- is an acquired taste. "You gotta fell in love with disa kinda taste," says Buffa, and unless you look like you spend a lot of time in the park playing boccie, the restaurant's well-intentioned waitresses will steer you away from the organ meat on a bun. Panelle -- deliciously nutty deep-fried chickpea-flour fritters -- are another story. Buffa serves his traditional "panelle special" ($3.50) slathered with fresh, buttery ricotta and salty pecorino romano shavings on an excellent, toasty house-baked semolina roll. Comfort-food libertines and carbo-loaders request the works, the "panelle and potato special" ($4), which adds a couple of mind-bendingly tasty potato croquettes to the mix, a combination more satisfying than any other in the sandwich world. "Anybody try the panelle or the potato, they gonna come back for sure, that's 99 and 3/4 percent," says Buffa. The killjoy quarter of a percent who abstain must be die-hard Zone Dieters.
Terramare Café (22 East 65th Street; (570-9222)
Terramare Café, a sunny, relatively inexpensive refuge around the corner from the big-ticket French bistros lining Madison Avenue, bills itself, with typical Italian aplomb, as serving "New York's best espresso." This may or may not be the case. To be sure, the stylishly overdressed and underfed European-expat crowd from Giorgio Armani, Dolce & Gabbana, and Prada around the corner feels right at home here. But you can't have guests over without offering them a little something, especially if you happen to be, like owners Gigio Palazzo and Alessandro Corsini (from Puglia and Tuscany, respectively), the sons of Italian mothers. Among Terramare's little somethings are exceptionally tasty, snack-size sandwiches ($6.50-$11.50). The best ones (porcini and truffle cheese; artichokes and sweet pecorino; prosciutto and fresh mozzarella) are pressed between a split half of pizza bianca, the light Roman-style bread made by Sullivan Street Bakery's Jim Lahey, patron saint of sandwiches in New York City. Unlike most of Sullivan Street's wholesale clientele, who prefer his crusty ciabatta rolls or baguettes as the basic building block of their sandwiches, Terramare's sandwich press has unlocked the hidden potential of the thin, contoured pizza bianca. With a little heat and quick compression, the ingredients seem happy to make each other's acquaintance and winningly meld together, the cheese oozing out over the edge of the crust, the flattened bread and filling becoming one graceful, balanced, satisfying sum of its parts.