I won’t get into the fight over whether city office workers are expected to return to their offices as we transition with an ever-evolving pandemic. I will note that anyone with an office in or near Midtown West may be motivated by the promise of a great lunch. Last November, All’Antico Vinaio, a very popular sandwich shop that originated in Florence, Italy, opened before expanding to Milan and Rome, the first US outpost in New York. I’ve been to Florence once, hardly for a day a few summers ago, and what I did that day, other than speed across the Uffizi, was perfect for a meal. Lunch was at All’Antico Vinaio.
I ordered La Paradiso, tripled on my favorite walnut: pistachio-thin coins glistened, like tiger spots, in flexible folds of mortadella that were covered in a layer of oily “pistachio cream” like pesto and stratatella (made with mozzarella curd mixed with cream) Topped with crushed pistachios, stacked among huge rectangles of freshly baked schiacciata, a Tuscan bread adjacent to focaccia. (Schiacciata means “crushed,” as in fingertips.) I ate it, both hands needed, on the doorstep across the cobbled street from the store, drinking cold wine from a plastic cup. I saw, in bright colors, the reason for all the fuss.
Eighth Street is not Via dei Neri. A Florence store is a 2-minute walk from Palazzo Vecchio, home of the famous version of Michelangelo’s David. The New York store is a six-minute walk from Times Square M&M’s World. But its interiors are mostly indistinguishable, and in New York there’s a small horseshoe-shaped seating area, wooden counters, and a few benches, all soaked in the sunlight one afternoon. I had the pleasure of watching the work of a small team of expert sandwich makers—really artists, to borrow a term from Subway—including one who has been relocated, indefinitely, from Florence.
Towering mounds of schiacciata sprang up from the basement at regular intervals, glistening with olive oil and glistening with coarse salt, releasing clouds of steam from the dense landscape of air bubbles as loaves were sliced horizontally, ends cut off and passed on to customers who waited patiently. Each bar is stacked with an irresistible mix of fresh meats, cheeses, flavoring creams, and vegetables. It can be difficult to choose among the 16 options, especially given the overlap in ingredients. A small chalkboard sign on the counter lists the two best sellers, which are also at the top of the list. La Favolosa features Tuscan salami and soft cubes of spicy spiced eggplant, as well as pecorino and artichoke cream. La Schiacciata del Boss has Tuscan prosciutto, sliced Pecorino, and a generous undertone of inky black truffle cream.
There are plenty of sandwiches for vegetarians. Steer clear of La Caprese out of tomato season, unless you don’t mind the lackluster and tender beef steak; Instead, try a La Broadway loader, like La Paradiso, with stracciatella, pistachio cream, and instead of mortadella, sun-dried tomatoes, cubed zucchini, and a handful of arugula. The L.A. Fade Away, which includes those vegetables plus eggplant and Gorgonzola, is satisfying, too, although I’m not sure what to do with L.A. (The New Yorker is made with roast beef and creamy porcini onions; there’s turkey and avocado at Beach Venice.) Vegetarians are going to have a harder time, as did the woman behind me in class who declared that she liked cheese but not “cold cheese.” If you eat pork, skipping the meat — salmon, prosciutto, capoccolo, porchetta, and ndoja — is doing yourself serious harm.
My favorite sandwiches from All’Antico glorify the Tuscan art of salumi by including only meat and cheese, the salinity of each honed by a drizzle of truffle honey. La Toscana marries Salam and Pecorino. Dolcezze d’Autunno combines Gorgonzola with lardo, cutting figurative fat by channeling the purest things. (Sandwiches from $10 to $18.) ♦