Careful what you say about sandwiches in front of Michele Colombo. The erstwhile Ogilvy adman is waging a one-man campaign against a popular misconception: that a panino (as most New Yorkers define it) is a split ciabatta roll filled with meat and cheese and smooshed to a crisp in a so-called panini press. Enter Colombo, eager to set the record straight. Three months ago, rather than accept a company transfer, he quit his job and opened Salumè, a Soho shop so single-mindedly dedicated to what the Milanese native considers his birthright—Real Italian Panini—that he emblazoned the phrase across Salumè’s front door.
To say that Colombo, tall and lanky and stylishly dressed like an Italian professor, is the sandwich equivalent of the Soup Nazi is overstating it, but he does have his moments. “Panini is one of the most abused words in the world!” he says. By his definition, a panino is never pressed, but rather served on lightly toasted rolls so as not to corrupt the integrity of the ingredients and muddle the flavors of the fillings. It must follow a recipe prescribed by Italian—specifically Milanese—tradition. And so does he, with a formula that’s simple and uncompromising, relying on mostly Italian cured meats, shaved to order on hand-cranked Berkel slicers; bread custom-baked for him by Eli’s and lightly, vigilantly toasted; good Italian cheeses; flavorful local tomatoes; and a host of unexpected condiments favored by Milanese panini aficionados, such as Tabasco, Lea & Perrins Worcestershire sauce, and salsa tartara. You can take your panino to go or eat it off rectangular china in a spare, elegant room designed by Colombo’s architect wife, its prep counter bookended by those Berkels, the salumi artfully arranged on shelves, jazz playing softly in the background.
Of course, New Yorkers—being New Yorkers and not appreciating being told they don’t know an Italian sandwich when they see one—were having none of this when Colombo first opened for business. Customers griped that the panini were too small and too expensive. Colombo, who knows from focus groups, listened to the complaints, trimmed his prices, and commissioned Eli’s to bake a bigger (eight-inch) roll. It’s safe to say that Salumè’s new, improved panini leave very little for the local populace to carp about. Having tasted our way through the 24-sandwich menu, the Underground Gourmet has come to a few conclusions.
Horseradish is an underappreciated condiment, and lends just enough bite to enliven a fluffy arrangement of shaved Prague prosciutto, creamy Fontina, and ripe tomato in the Trieste ($11). Tartar sauce has a life outside the fish-and-chips shop—namely, slathered underneath sliced fennel and sharp Gorgonzola on the quirky but tasty Bellagio ($9.50). And speaking of cheese, it needn’t be melted to have appeal: The Brie enriching the Valtellina ($11.50) plays quite nicely with a heap of thin-sliced bresaola, with the unexpected but welcome touch of sliced lemons for acidity.
These are unusual combinations but hardly off-the-wall, and they’re assembled meticulously and served with panache. The only quibble one might have is that the new sandwich roll is sometimes too crusty, too sharp. (Circumvent that potential peril by choosing one of the four “Toasts,” made on lightly browned Pullman, or a pristine meat or cheese plate.) But this might be a problem specific to the U.G., who, when presented with a freshly made, gently toasted panino, has a tendency to pounce like a seal going after a sardine. If you chew your sandwich slowly and in the civilized manner prescribed by both Letitia Baldrige and Ms. U.G., you should not have a problem, and won’t suffer an ulcerated roof of the mouth—what is known in certain sandwich circles as panini palate. You can ease the pain, however, with a soothing housemade tiramisu served in a square cup. As far as we know, worldly New Yorkers have a firm grasp on what constitutes that popular dessert, but if not, Signor Colombo will surely enlighten us.