Sandwiches. I know, I know. I've been talking about them a lot lately. But I have a good reason for it. A uniquely Alaska reason. Because like most Alaskans, I spend my summer trying to do the impossible: be in 10 different places at once. I want to be everywhere: camping in Hope, listening to live music downtown, reading a book under a backyard tree, visiting with friends around a fire pit. The only place I don't want to be during these short months? My kitchen.
Don't get me wrong, I love to cook. But for me, the best summertime meals can be wrapped in wax paper, eaten hot or cold, and can fit into a backpack. In other words: a sandwich. And a good sandwich is as good as a feast. Which brings me to Originale, the painstakingly authentic Italian eatery that recently relocated downtown. When this high-quality lunch spot disappeared from its Midtown location, I was prepared to go into mourning. So when I learned about its new digs on a street with high foot traffic, I was delighted to ditch the black lace veil.
It's a nice spot for dining in, but in the summer I prefer to take my lunch to an obliging picnic table. Fancy and homey in equal parts, the menu features authentic imported Italian cheeses and meats (and a few other pantry staples), salads and hot and cold sandwiches. But there's always something else cooking in la cucina, like daily soups, lasagnas, housemade cakes, cookies and biscotti, along with gelato and Italian coffee drinks.
We've had a packed summer schedule, so my husband picked up sandwiches for a quick dinner that could be eaten with one hand while packing for a weekend trip with the other. We opted for three full-sized sandwiches, which, when paired with a salad, went far for four people.
The three sandwiches wound up in a neck-and-neck race for family favorite. In first place was the Diavolo ($11.50/$17.50), which is also the deli's top seller. A grilled sandwich with spicy salami, soppressata, spicy coppa (a dry-cured meat similar to prosciutto), pepper salami, a housemade spicy pepper sauce and fresh mozzarella, this dish was not kidding about the spice. It was, in fact, devilishly hot. However, even my mild-palated 12-year-old enjoyed the sandwich. Culinary corner turned? Fingers crossed. She ate her share and then downed a glass of milk.
In (close) second place was my husband's pick — the New York City ($9/$15). This traditional East Coast delicacy was given the Italian treatment, with fresh mozzarella and a grassy basil spread. He was well satisfied and notably parsimonious when "sharing" with the rest of us.
Our (also close) third place choice was the Originale, ($9.50/$14.50). My personal pick, this sandwich was simplicity itself and really let the ingredients shine. The salty, silky prosciutto crudo was so thinly sliced that it was practically translucent. The creaminess of the fresh mozzarella beautifully balanced the saltiness. Served cold, this sandwich really showcased the beauty of the housemade focaccia (toasted bread can hide a multitude of sins). Finished with olive oil and a blend of "secret" spices, the bread was pliant and moist but also substantial. This sandwich was perfectly simple and simply perfect.
All sandwiches come with a side of soup, chips or the house potato salad. That day they offered a bean soup with piquillo peppers. Hearty, creamy, comforting, I was sorry to have only ordered one cup of it. The potato salad had a hard time living up to the flavorful, high-impact sandwiches. It had a great, creamy texture but needed more assertive seasoning.
I returned the following week because I had somehow omitted to order a sandwich featuring mortadella — an ingredient I love and one that isn't that easy to find. I opted for the straightforward Michelangelo ($5.50/$8), which is simply mortadella and cheese. Mortadella, for want of a better description, is like fancy bologna though it bears no resemblance to the flabby stuff stuck between mushy white bread that you might once have unpacked from your Scooby-Doo lunchbox. It's a smoked sausage made of beef, pork and pork fat that is finely hashed and heat cured. It's delicate and velvety, buttery and mild. My 12-year-old loved it. Even without the Scooby-Doo lunchbox.
That trip yielded a bonus: dinner for the night. The day's special was a fully cooked lasagna ($27) with rosemary ham. You guys, did you know you can put ham in lasagna? I did not. I'm glad to be enlightened. Thin layers of coppa ham filled in for the usual ragu of ground meat. It was a lovely casserole with a bright acidic, spring-like tomato sauce that kept the dish tasting light. Full disclosure: My husband found the dish to be too salty. I love a generous hand with seasoning and had to agree that the salt level was right on the edge. That's a minor complaint for me but could be off-putting for a different palate.
So, go ahead and eat with your hands. Eat in your car, on a boat, on a four-wheeler or a mountaintop. Eat in hip waders, bike shorts, hiking boots or a bikini. It's time to celebrate the season of the sandwich. Start at Originale. You'll thank me.
Hours: 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday, closed Sundays
Location: 400 D St.
Contact: 907-868-7900 and originaleak.com