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Hot Pockets

Two downtown sandwich spinoffs leave the bread oven behind.


Photographs by Danny Kim

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.

In other breadcentric news, the Hell’s Kitchen “Middleterranean” restaurant ­Taboon has spawned a Greenwich Village outpost called Taboonette, devoted to so-called pocket food: meat, seafood, and vegetable fillings stuffed into pita, folded into wraps, or served over vermicelli-strewn rice. A taboon is a domed oven, and the source of the midtown flagship’s excellent flatbread. It’s something of a disappointment, then, to learn that appearances to the contrary (firewood stacked up along one wall; a rustic beehive oven in the corner), none of ­Taboonette’s bread is made in-house, or even uptown. Still, there are plenty of good things to eat at this friendly ­counter-­service canteen, where customers perch on bar stools or share two whitewashed picnic tables.

The U.G. was particularly taken with the clever breakfast-sandwich interpretation of shakshuka, the skillet-cooked egg dish. Here a sunny-side-up egg is tucked into a puffy, Israeli-style pita with a ­garlicky tomato-and-onion stew and ­garnished with cilantro, tahini, and the Yemeni hot sauce srug: a Middle Eastern Egg McMuffin of sorts. But don’t be fooled. Despite the presence of Israeli standards like sabich sandwiches and beef-and-lamb kebabs, Taboonette is no ordinary hummus joint. It takes a much worldlier approach. Hence the pulled-pork pocket with fennel-jicama-apple slaw and chicharrónes, and the sautéed calamari option with yogurt sauce and chimichurri.

Truth be told, we’ve had better chicken shawarma—this one is actually a loose interpretation of the dish, involving spicy strips of meat cooked on a griddle rather than the traditional slivers shaved off a spit. But preserved lemon enlivens a baked-salmon sandwich, and in case you didn’t know, roasted kruveet (cauliflower) marries very nicely with grilled eggplant, hummus, and cilantro, when tucked into a whole-wheat pita. As far as accoutrements go, the vermicelli rice makes a tasty companion to the grilled meats, and the salads, while not particularly inspired, are fresh and well-dressed, often with a bright burst of lemon.


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