Friday, January 1, 2010

What Is It . . .

about a great sandwich? Why does encasing meat, cheese, or veggies between two slices of bread result in the perfect meal? What isn’t better when part of a sandwich? (O.K., if you answered chitterlings, I’ll give you that.)

Last spring, still harboring resentment about our three-hour wait at Pizzeria Bianco, we passed on eating at Pizzeria Bianco’s sister restaurant – Pane Bianco (both restaurants are owned by Chris Bianco). What a mistake. This low-key sandwich shop is the antithesis of Pizzeria Bianco. Located in a nondescript series of shops on Central Avenue in Phoenix, Pane Bianco lacks any indoor seating. If you are not taking lunch out, you take a seat at one of the outdoor picnic tables and watch the light rail trains.

When you go inside to place your order, you notice that three-quarters of the space is taken by the kitchen. This space is dominated by a large wood-burning oven, which is used for baking the focaccia that forms the base for all four sandwiches. The bread comes hot from the oven, sometimes with a bit of char on the edges, and is immediately made into one of the aforementioned four sandwiches.

The menu? The menu consists of four sandwiches (three regulars and the market sandwich of the day) and three salads. Your choice of sandwiches are: tuna with red onion, olives, lemon, and arugula; soppressata with aged provolone and roasted red peppers; fresh housemade mozzarella with tomatoes and basil; and the market sandwich. That day the market sandwich was breseola (dried Italian beef) with black pepper rustico cheese and arugula. Our choices were the market sandwich and the mozzarella/tomato/basil.

Where to start? Let’s start with the bread – the foundation for any great sandwich. Each sandwich came on a bread round about six inches in diameter. While described as focaccia, this was much thinner than the focaccia with which I am familiar. I would describe it as a cross between a pita and focaccia. The top was brushed with oil which resulted in a crisp and crunchy crust.

Both sandwiches were equally delicious, and I would be hard pressed to indicate a preference. As I have frequently mentioned, the combination of tomato and basil is one of my favorites. When I unwrapped the sandwich, my senses were immediately inundated by the smell of fresh basil. (I don’t know why the makers of scented candles haven’t come out with a basil candle. Enough with the apple pie, vanilla, etc.) The bread, still hot from the oven, just lightly melted the mozzarella cheese and warmed the basil. The juicy tomatoes were both sweet and tart. This sandwich was the equivalent of a margherita pizza on a roll.

We knew we would like the mozzarella/tomato/basil sandwich, but we were surprised at how much we enjoyed the breseola/rustico cheese/arugula sandwich. Again, the hot bread began to soften the cheese and brought out the peppery flavor. I’d like to know Chris Bianco’s produce purveyor so that I could find baby arugula like that on our sandwich. The mildly peppery greens, along with the peppery cheese, when paired with the thin sliced air dried beef had both of us making audible sounds of sandwich eating delight.

Pane Bianco’s mozzarella/tomato/basil sandwich was named one of the twenty-three best sandwiches by Phoenix Magazine. Granted, Pane Bianco has zero atmosphere, but it has one hundred percent great food at what we consider reasonable prices ($8.00 to $9.00) and earns a 5.0 Addie score.

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