As children, many of us toted a lunch box that held the vital means for lasting an entire school day: the sandwich. Mom understood our favorites and how the right ratio of mayo to mustard mattered. Later, in midnight raids of the fridge, we mastered the exotic use of leftovers, and on the day after Thanksgiving, we constructed the best sandwich of the year. Slow-roasted meat and gourmet relish buttressed by homemade bread embodies the art of the sandwich.
And art it is to assemble a veritable feast between crusts of bread. Bread is the canvas. It is also where art becomes architecture. Whether one prefers Mediterranean flatbread, rustic ciabatta or a granary wedge, the bread should be substantial, not sloppy—a foundation upon which to build. Spreading a condiment over the bread acts as a barrier to mushiness or adds moisture. Next, cheese imparts strength as well as sharp, nutty or velvety appeal. Meat often showcases the perfect sandwich, and greens cap it off. The British Sandwich Association—now, there’s an organization worth its salt and pepper—actually crowns a champion sandwich maker annually. The ingredients need not be elaborate. A recent winner utilized homemade fruit bread, quality butter, soft Lancashire cheese and an artisan pickle.
Sandwiches follow food trends, and the U.S. influences the arc with its melting pot acceptance of food and flavors. Special ingredients, such as roasted veg or micro-greens, and sourcing, such as grass-fed proteins and handmade cheeses might feature. Processes, like brined poultry and organic produce, and scratch items, like chutneys or aioli, can upgrade the results.
The best sandwich art begins with the classics and builds on them. Cecily Maniaci, owner of Toasted Owl, applied that approach, and then, took it a step further. “When my kids were in school—and teens are the hardest to please,” she reminisced, “I asked them to go out, share their lunches with others and give me feedback.” Those trials led to her top-sellers.
Toasted Owl’s prosciutto brie sandwich slathers seedy fig jam on grilled focaccia, melts brie over a stack of tender, razor-thin meat, and finishes with a drizzle of balsamic vinegar and olive oil. The hot handful plays creamy against salty, set off with sweet jam. The loaded turkey sandwich is another hottie dressed with pesto, Havarti, tomato and greens on hearty wheat. The Birch club masses meat in a classic combo of ham, turkey and bacon plus mozzarella, sliced tomato, greens and mayo on wheat. Served cold, it’s a smoky meld of flavors and textures. The veg owl sandwich loads grilled eggplant with roasted red peppers, a swipe of goat cheese, pecans and balsamic. It’s a yummer. Each plate comes piled with house made, bronzed potato chips and runs $8.75.
“Our sandwiches are the best because we buy the best groceries,” Maniaci said. “I research everything and read cookbooks for fun.” Montana Farms, a family-owned, artisanal shop, available through Shamrock Farms, provides the café’s bread, offering non-GMO and gluten-free options. Many diners have dietary issues or preferences, and Maniaci employs natural alternatives for a top-notch nosh, like Tepa™—a protein source, produced and acclaimed regionally.
Toasted Owl opened in 2013, and quickly gained momentum. Recently, the café moved to its current location on Mikes Pike. The expanded space invites an expanded menu to include dinner. Patio seating will open up with warmer weather, enhanced by a mural channeling the same owl-centric theme that permeates the shop. Previously, Maniaci held a contest, which produced the one-of-a-kind owl art with which to decorate, and friends continue to add to it regularly. The owner is a self-proclaimed vintage junkie with a penchant for more, so nearly everything in the Toasted Owl is for sale. Tables, chairs, chandeliers and owls in every form—from salt and pepper shakers to pointillist paintings—can be added to your bill. The turnover is a form upcycle recycling. “It is a generosity of spirit throughout,” Maniaci said.
A sandwich is comfort food—it feeds the stomach and the soul—and despite its humble basis, it is a work of art. We can thank the 4th Earl of Sandwich for his ingenuity. Beyond an upright command, ranging from the British Navy to the House of Lords, he also was a profligate gambler. In a 24-binge at the gaming table, he crafted his genius of convenience—the sandwich.
NAMLM Gail G. Collins