It’s a tasty little delicacy, the tramezzino (a sort of sandwich; think English tea sandwich but far tastier). You can find it all over Italy, and is especially popular in Venice, Rome, and Turin. Why they’re hard to find in Tuscany is unclear. Because they probably aren’t Tuscan originally? Florentines opt for their savories in schiacciata (basically, terrific pizza dough, cooked with olive oil and salt in a highly hot oven) or other less-interesting breadstuffs. Fortunately, tramezzini aficionados can find them, but it’s work (like, say, taking the train to Livorno, which has a thriving Tramezzino Culture).
Debate rages over the tramezzino’s origins. Those from the Veneto (the area in and around Venice) insist that it’s Venetian, created in the late 1950s and first found in Mestre (the nearest non-lagooned land before Venice). Those from Turin contend that it was first served at a bar called Mulassano in 1925. In fact, the local rag, La Stampa, ran an article in August 2008 claiming this as fact. (That the Venetians and the Turinese bicker over this should come as no surprise, as both cities like to take credit for inventing tiramisù) Urban myths abound as well: some people who worry about these things believe that a Venetian (or, perhaps, someone from Turin?) went to England around 1800, ordered a “spuntino” (a reputable Italian dictionary (Zingarelli) says “a small refection consumed either between meals or substituting for one” a.k.a., a snack) and instead was served a sandwich, thanks to the precedent established by the Earl of the same. This Venetian man liked it so much he imported the idea to Venice. Or to Turin.
Seeking enlightenment, went to http://www.accademiabarilla.it/ (an equally reputable source; Barilla make good pasta and have a serious cooking school). According to their web site, the idea of stuffing sandwiches dates back as far as the 1st century B.C. An enterprising (well, I call him enterprising; they didn’t) rabbi named Hillel stuffed a sandwich with walnuts, apples, and spices. This is documented. The Barilla page then reveals that Italians probably thrilled to the idea of stuffed sandwiches (can’t we simply call them “sandwiches?” What constitutes an empty sandwich?) probably at the beginning of the 20th century. The Futurists (a bunch of mostly guy provocateurs who painted and sculpted, among other things) and writer Gabriele D’Annunzio suggested calling it “traidue” which means, literally, “between the two.” Somehow this all got modified to tramezzino.
Regardless of where they were invented, these things are good. Tillie loved them and ate them whenever the opportunity presented itself, which was often when she was in Rome. Rome’s Tramezzino Culture is lively and vibrant (just like Livorno’s, only more so).
What’s important is the bread. It has to be white, crust-less, and a little on the soft side. Judicious application of mayonnaise is critical: not enough makes it too dry; too much makes it a soggy, oozing mess. Stuffings vary. Rome likes to pair tuna with artichokes (Tillie once had an exceptional one comprised of cold poached shrimp, tomatoes, artichokes, lettuce, and the piece-dè-resistance, gherkins) and salame and egg; Livorno likes to pair boiled ham and artichokes, among other things. The Venetians simply love to stuff (see below).
Construction technique varies as well. In Rome, they are served between two pieces of bread. In Livorno, between three. In Venice they cram them to the gills – or, as Anne Elk once said, more or less, about brontosauruses in a Monty Python sketch: they are thin at one end, very, very thick in the middle, and thin again at the other end.
Other classic combinations: boiled ham/cheese, boiled ham/canned mushrooms (you read that right), boiled ham/tomato, tomato/hard boiled egg/anchovy, salame/egg, tuna/egg, tuna/tomato, tomato/mozzarella – to name but a few. Unclassic combinations: the one Tillie ate in Rome, boiled ham/black truffle paste.
Important: If you’re in Italy and want to have one in a bar or pasticceria, remember that they are best eaten in the morning when they are made, some get soggier as they sit around, others drier until the bread buckles.
(Classic) Tramezzino with Ham and Artichokes
Two slices of white bread, crust removed, preferably Pepperidge Farm or something similar
3-4 pieces of thinly-sliced, high-quality boiled ham
3 artichokes, preferably water-packed, thinly sliced
2 T. good-quality mayonnaise
Lather one T. mayonnaise on each slice of bread. Place the boiled ham on top, then the artichokes. Top with the other piece of mayonnaise’d bread. Using a serrated knife, gently cut the sandwich on the diagonal. Eat immediately. If dogs are present – and they usually are -- share the other half with them.
(Unclassic) Tramezzino with Smoked Salmon, Cucumber, and Arugula
Enough smoked salmon to cover, amply, the bread
Enough sliced cucumber, ditto
Generous handful of arugula
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
Dash of lemon juice
1 T. Dijon mustard
1 T. good-quality mayonnaise
Directions as above, only put the Dijon on one slice, mayonnaise on the other.