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Great Sandwiches of the World: Sicilian Vastedda

Critic Robert Sietsema looks at NYC versions of regional favorites

Joe’s of Avenue U in Gravesend
| Robert Sietsema

The first sandwich installment.

Joe’s of Avenue U Photo by Robert Sietsema

Like the United States, Sicily has a sandwich culture. Sandwiches are often served in Palermo snack shops called focaccerie, on round rolls called focacce. Two transplanted focaccerie in Brooklyn also serve the sandwiches. Most prominent is Joe’s of Avenue U in Gravesend just under the Avenue U stop on the F train (Ferdinando’s Focacceria in Red Hook is the other).

A focacceria in Sicily is often a snack shop with standing tables serving items like stuffed artichoke or an oiled seafood salad. Yet Joe’s is a full-service restaurant that bears resemblance to a mid-century diner with Naugahyde-upholstered booths. Though it was founded around the same period — in 1956 to be exact — this is no diner, according to the sign: It’s a Focacceria Palermitana, a Palermo-style focacceria, where, inside, a mural of laborers in the Sicilian countryside spreads across a wall.

The menu includes Sicilian specialties such as fried calamari with hot or sweet tomato dipping sauce, steamed escarole and broccoli rabe, and various pastas — of which the most prominent is pasta con sarde: bucatini in a chunky sauce of sardines and fennel, sweetened with currants. But head for the restaurant’s raison d’etre, a sandwich on a seeded roll called a vastedda.

That vastedda (also known as pane ca meusa) features a dollop of snowy ricotta, firmer grated Caciocavallo cheese, and slices of cow spleen that have been boiled and then crisped in lard. Cow spleen? Yes, this much-neglected organ weighs one to three pounds in the cow, is suffused with blood, and has little biological function, other than a marginal immunological one.

It tastes something like rubbery liver, and inside a vastedda cloaked in cheese, the organ comes alive. The sandwich is fantastic, and it doesn’t take more than one to totally fill you up. For the offal-adverse, a version of the vastedda featuring chickpea fritters instead of spleen is also available; Ask for a panelle special. It’s almost as good.

Joe's of Avenue U

287 Avenue U, Brooklyn, NY 11223 (718) 449-9285
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