Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The road to heaven is paved with panini

The Renaissance masters imagined heaven as a glowing world of angels, golden furniture and pious beings.

But we found heaven in Florence. It's a sandwich shop on Via Neri. More specifically, the All'antico Vinaio paninoteca.

All'antico Vinaio
We spent another morning at the Ufizi, this time concentrating on Michelangelo and other artists of his time.  (This was another heaven -- it was hotter than hell outside, but the Ufizi is air conditioned.)

After a couple of hours, we were painting-ed out and hungry. So we walked up side streets looking for a panini shop.

"Panini," by the way, is a generic Italian term for "sandwich." It doesn't necessarily mean one of those hot-pressed things now popular in the U.S.

As we turned down one street, it was quite obvious we had found the hot spot among panini fans.  The line wound out to the stone street as people tried to crowd in.

Cecile and I were standing in the back when I noticed that one of the counter men was waving at me. He kept pointing behind me and mouthing something.  Finally, I realized he was pointing to the sandwich shop across the street and saying "Same store!" And no line. He and me: smiles and thumbs up (the universal sign for "OK.")

The panini maestros
We hustled through the door and into sandwich heaven.  Like so many stores on these side streets, this was built into an old vault.  The ceilings were arches of brick and the narrow store went way back into the block like a tunnel. From those arches hung hams, smoked meats and salamis as thick as your thigh.

And behind the counter were a couple of guys with so much energy, the must take their expresso intravenously.

When the nearest counter man greeted us with "buon giorno," pointed to the meats and said "prego," Cecile showed just what a brilliant woman she is.

"What is your favorite?," she asked. Big smile and wink for Cecile.

"I make it for you." And make it he did.

Lettuce fresh from the garden
The masterpiece. 

Secret sauce? You have no idea

First an exceedingly fresh square of focaccia -- inch-thick Italian flat bread. Then a smear of ricotta heavily flavored with herbs and truffle. Then marinated eggplant. And freshly grated zucchini. Fresh tomatoes, sliced on the spot. Lettuce -- yes, but not iceberg. Crisp leaf -- probably lollo bionda. And finely sliced mint topped with a little olive oil.  Then to the slicer where he quickly cut a big pile of meat from a whole-leg ham (like those hanging from the ceiling). Topped off with smoked mozzarella.

(We learned from a butcher that Italian ham comes in three flavors -- and prices.  The least expensive is boned whole ham, which takes about 10 months to dry-cure. Then classic Italian ham or prosciuto, which takes about 15 months to dry on the bone.  Then Parma ham, which is aged like a fine wine.  They all taste great).
Cecile with her brilliant idea

The resulting sandwich was more than enough for both of us, so he sliced it and handed it to Cecile with another wink. When I asked for vino, he pointed to a line of empty glasses and a bigger line of full bottles of various Tuscan reds.  I took my cue from Cecile: "Which do you like?" He handed me a bottle of Santa Marino 2011.

I have to admit that I rather embarrassed myself as we sat on the high stools eating our panini. About every two bites, I gasped in delight and said "Oh God, this tastes incredible." In Florence, that is an acceptable prayer rather than sacralege. I could have been a little quieter, but it looked like the rest of the customers where having their own out-of-body dining experiences.

Then came the blessing -- the bill was only €7 (about $9). Hand-made lunch touched by the angels, plus wine for under $10.  Beat that, McDonalds.

(BTW, I'm just a member of the chorus. Check out the reviews.)

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