Whenever a new or forgotten Interesting Food enters my consciousness I become fixated and relentless: I research and think about it, chase it down, and rhapsodize without end until another gem takes its place. My friends laugh. I laugh. My wife and daughter laugh — or they roll their eyes.
Before retiring for the night on a recent Saturday I sat on the couch stripped down to my Penobscot Bay Paddle & Chowder Society tee-shirt and my boxers — dressed for bed but not quite able to pull away from mesmerizing online threads about the legendary Catskills Sandwich.
The Paddle & Chowder tee-shirt makes a good story on its own. Last August we were standing outside of Micucci Wholesale Foods in Portland, Maine — ready to bite into our juicy sweet "slabs" of their signature pan pizza — when a man wearing said Paddle & Chowder tee-shirt saw our New York license tag and asked how we had come to discover Micucci's. "A friend from Maine told me about it," I told him — adding that we had come to try the pizza.
I gawked at and expressed admiration for his tee-shirt with its graphic illustration of a split paddle over a steaming kettle of chowder atop a flame-engulfed broken canoe. I thought acquiring one of my own was unlikely since I'm not a member of the Society — and I don't boat — but I asked anyway. "Oh, they'd probably give you one," he said.
Not long after returning home from Maine I mentioned the shirt to Kristin. She ignored me. But I went on Facebook, found the Society's page, became a fan, and sent a message to the President. No reply. A week later I sent another message, this time to the Treasurer. What Treasurer would decline a check in exchange for a tee-shirt, I thought to myself. It worked. $20 and a couple weeks later, I received one of my own.
Let me get to why I was researching the Catskills Sandwich.
Earlier that night Kristin and I were over at our friends C. & E.'s for dinner, discussing a lunch experience C. and I had shared a week earlier at Brennan & Carr, a famous roast beef restaurant located at the crossroads of several distinct Brooklyn neighborhoods — far, far from Manhattan. After lunch, as we stood in the parking lot — I was snapping photos of the Hot Beef sign and admiring the restaurant's anomalous Tudor-like architecture — we met owner Eddie Sullivan. Our chat hit upon many topics, including: why Eddie doesn't park in his own lot, how clean Brennan & Carr's kitchen is, how (regular customer) Marty always asks the waiter to first rinse his mug with warm water because he prefers his Bud not frosty, and how Brennan & Carr has had only three butchers (ie. those who are allowed to slice the meat) in the last 50 years. Great place.
But back to the dinner with C. and E. As C. and I told our wives the tale of roast beef, Brennan & Carr, and Eddie Sullivan my mind wandered to the phenomenon of Monte's Deli — a hard-to-find Italian sandwich shop on a quiet stretch of Avenue O in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.
"Did I ever tell you about Monte's?" I asked the group. "No," said C. and E. Oh, where to start, I wondered.
[Truth told, my first thought was about coats of arms — and how Monte's and several NYC pizzerias have them (see above photos).]
"Monte's offers three sizes of bread," I said, "the roll, the football, and the hero. I always order prosciutto di Parma and mozzarella on a roll or a football."
[The football, which is a mid-sized sandwich roll, was christened as such by an astute Monte's customer years ago.]
"I order it plain," I added, "Nothing on it like mustard or mayo, lettuce or tomatoes."
E. found this funny — and I too began to laugh. After a minute, I paused to gather my composure (and dry my eyes) and mentioned that I love this sandwich so much I've never deviated from it at Monte's — not even for the intriguing "Chinese" roast pork and Duck Sauce sandwich on garlic bread, the one I once read somehow connects with the Borscht Belt Catskills visited by Jewish New Yorkers two or three generations ago. E. lost it and laughed like crazy — so did I!
"Why would they have eaten pork?" she asked. She thought I was mixed up. I told her I couldn't remember what I had read.
And that's why later that night at home — wearing only boxers and tee-shirt — I looked it up.
Before I get to that, however, I should address my inspiration for the plain prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich. It happened in Italy. The sandwich man at Frontoni — a remarkable pizza farcita restaurant in Rome, where lucky customers could select fillings from dozens of choices (including meats, veggies, cheeses, seafood, and spreads) for a personalized hot pizza sandwich — recommended against adding a spread to my prosciutto and mozzarella. I've never since forgotten his message — that certain food combinations are best left plain. [Sad news: Frontoni closed its doors for good in January 2011; it had been in business since 1921.]
So at Monte's — where the prosciutto is top quality, the mozzarella is made fresh each day, and bread comes from a 93 year old bakery across the street — in spite of riveting temptations like the Catskills Sandwich — I still couldn't deviate from tradition.
C'mon, you may be thinking, try the damn pork sandwich already! Well, I did. But not from Monte's. My late night research led to two valuable discoveries — one of which I have since visited three times in the last week.
First, the info discovery: according to Arthur Schwartz in his 2008 book Jewish Home Cooking, the Catskills Sandwich was invented in the mid-1950s at Herbie's — a late night gathering place for entertainers in Loch Sheldrake, NY. Schwartz wrote that, "it was a dish that made first- and second-generation Jews of the 1950s, Jews who no longer abided by the kosher laws, feel like they were truly Americans as well as urbane and sophisticated. Imagine what a scandal it was to observant parents and grandparents, what a delicious act of defiant assimilation it was, to eat Chinese roast pork on Italian garlic bread."
[Note/revelation: garlic bread is Italian!]
Second, I learned from a local blogsite that Court Street Grocers — a new store near the elevated expressway about a half mile from where I live — makes a quality version of the Catskills Sandwich! Prior to roasting, they marinate pork loin in tamarind and apple; they make homeade Duck Sauce with non-HFCS ketchup, mustard, sherry vinegar, apricot preserves, Sriracha chili sauce, cumin, and coriander; and they prepare garlic bread using Italian ciabatta and a garlic-parsley-butter compound. The sandwich makes for a sweet-'n'-sour, chewy-'n'-crunchy, meaty — and history-infused — food epiphany.
And yes, go have one! But also go because CSG is more than a sandwich shop. It is a store that sells foods ranging from hyper-local (Granola Lab's — Brooklyn) to imported (Kewpie mayonnaise — Japan), and from obvious (Heinz Ketchup) to kitchy (Woeber's Horseradish Sauce, Nesbitt's orange soda). Mouse-over the photo of CSG's Catskills Sandwich at the top of this story to see a small cross-section of the store's diverse offerings. Also, be sure to notice — in the bottom row, below the Kewpie mayonnaise — how this rambling story about my food obsessions sews up with good old-fashioned coincidence. For there it is: Puttanesca sauce from Micucci Wholesale Foods — home of slab pizza and stop-in for man wearing Paddle & Chowder Society tee-shirt. Re. the sauce: I haven't tried it yet, but I know it must be good!
(Call ahead for days/hours.)