Some things just taste better in their place of origin. I was talking about this the other evening with a friend as we were recalling a past trip to Greece. We were talking about a visit to a small village where they produced ouzo, which – as we remembered – had never before and never again tasted so good. I’m sure much had to do with the fact that it was indeed good quality ouzo. But there was also the fact that ouzo just made sense in Greece. I took a small bottle of it home with me and try as I might, I could never quite recreate the joy of sipping the milky watered down and icy glass of it under the shade of a tree on the island of Chios.
I had the same experience recently in Torino. But instead of a glass of ouzo my geographical epiphany came in the form of a soft little sandwich. I’m a big fan of the tramezzino – an Italian sandwich made on soft white bread and usually cut into triangles and filled with one or two ingredients. Mayonnaise is almost always part of the equation.
The tramezzino is nowadays served all over Italy, in most bars,, as either a snack or a few to make lunch. For some reason I had always thought they hailed from Venice, where most bars display massive pieces of soft white bread bulging with all sorts of stuffing.
Little did I know that the small delicate sandwich was actually invented in 1926 in Torino at a tiny jewel box of a bar, Caffe Mulassano. The sandwich came into being through a visit to America, and so was based on sandwiches the owners had experienced there. The small dainty panini were meant at first to be eaten during work breaks or together with an aperitivo. The location of the bar, and it’s over the top art nouveau decoration, made it a gathering place not just for local workers but for writers and artists as well. And it was Gabriele D’Annunzio who christened it the tramezzino (although I can’t quite seem to find out the meaning of the word)
That’s the history. But the reality? So much better. I visited four times during the week I was in Torino. Partly because the place itself is so charming. Polished wood and brass, gleaming marble and pristine cases full of pastries and tramezzini. The place was almost always full. There are a half dozen tables along one side, but the bar was a full as well.
Most people placed their order for either a coffee (in the morning) or an aperitivo (Anytime after noon) and then headed over to the glass fronted tramezzino case to make their choice. Trays, covered with dampened cloth (to keep the bread fresh) were stacked with piles of different tramezzini. Although I was tempted by the exotic flavors like lobster, shrimp or truffle, I tended towards the meaty end of the spectrum. My favorite by far was the chicken salad, filled with deeply flavored chunks of roasted chicken tucked between bright green lettuce and just enough mayonnaise to hold it all together. And the bread: nothing at all to do with the squishy industrial stuff you find in most tramezzini. This was home baked, firm , cut irregularly into squares and held together with a toothpick.
But my favorite part? That the humble sandwiches came to the table atop a silver, footed dish.
So yes, it was just a sandwich. And yes, I could probably make one equally as good at home if I tried. But it just wouldn’t taste the same without the setting, the dish, the theatrics that continue to exist at Caffe Mulassano.
Piazza Castello 15
For more information on dining in Italy download my app, EAT ITALY. EAT ITALY is a free app, and contains guides to Venice, Milan, Rome, Florence and Umbria available as in-app purchases for both iPhone and iPad.
EAT TORINO will join the other cities in May 2016.