In the 80s, the East Village had this memorable Sicilian sandwich shop on First Avenue called Brunetta’s, somewhere around 6th Street, later moving to 11th. It had a front window that featured a burner under a squarish reservoir of bubbling oil, in which the cook fried slices of spleen and caciocavallo cheese. He would use these along with fluffy white ricotta and a small round roll to make a sandwich called vastedda. It was like being in Palermo, at the kind of snack and sandwich shop known as a focacceria. There were probably five places that made these sandwiches, the rest in Brooklyn.
Harder to find was its vegetarian cousin, the panelle special, which featured fritters of chickpea paste, something like a flatter and more rubbery panisse. These sandwiches could always be had at Joe’s of Avenue U, a diehard Sicilian restaurant in the shadow of the F tracks in Gravesend dating to the 1950s. Though I haven’t seen this sandwich very often, it reappeared recently in a new Sicilian restaurant in Bay Ridge called Amuni — though “restaurant” is a rather formal designation for this informal snack shop, pasta place, and yes, focacceria in an updated form.
The panelle special ($12) is on an oblong roll, with three chickpea fritters the thickness of luncheon meat. When fried, they develop a nutty taste and extra richness from the frying oil. It’s topped with a fluffy mass of ricotta, clean upon the tongue. The combination with the simple roll makes a pleasantly plain sandwich with a surfeit of protein, and a friend and I found it was particularly good for a hangover, starchy and comforting.
It was my intention to celebrate the sandwich when I started this column early last year by finding as many tasty examples as possible. The emphasis was on fringe styles, but also presenting sandwiches that were considered normal 30 years ago that now seem quaint. I have done this weekly, and periodically presented round-ups of the ones I consider best.