The year is 1989. I'm a young 'hound on the streets, working my first job and discovering the wonders of food in New York. Finding out that there's a bar under Grand Central Station that has dozens of varieties of oysters. Stealing away from work to go to Old Denmark for their wonderful mixed plate lunch. And making constant Soho pilgrimages to Melampo, for wonderfully crafted sandwiches by a strange, crusty man in his shoebox-sized shop.
I've been eating his sandwiches fairly regularly since then, going at 11:45 to avoid any trace of a line, and ensuring a free bench in the park nearby.
But as Jeremy Osner posted in May, something has been amiss recently....
Earlier this year I went to Melampo and had a tuna, provelone and caponata sandwich on semolina. I noticed that Allesandro (the owner) had a helper behind his refrigerator, but he's done that to cope with the summer lunchtime rushes for a few years now. But I also noticed that he made my sandwich in record time, despite the absence of a line. OK, maybe he just had too much espresso today. I go to the park and dig into the sandwich and I notice that it's less weighty than usual, and the caponata is thin and tasteless - it used to be thick - homemade, I thought. Hmmmm.
I go back a few weeks later and have a sun dried tomato and smoked mozzarella on foccacia. Again, the speedy construction. This time I also notice that the San Pellegrino sodas are now in cans, not bottles. And what's this? Sales tax? In the past Allesandro's already-expensive creations were "all-inclusive". After all, the sandwich genius could not be bothered with pennies! Quarters were as low as he would go. In the park I take a bite, and the gut feeling that something is wrong returns. There's no olive oil dressing, no harmony between quantities of ingredients - it's basically a sandwich I could have made myself. This does not bode well.
I head back a third time a week later. Upon entering, there is a man behind the counter I've never seen. I ask if Allesandro is on vacation; no, he's just moving his car. I order the Melampo gold standard, the sandwich that all others pale next to: "The More Better" on tremezzino bread. Slices of homemade mozzarella, a spread of caponata, slices of pickled artichoke, crowned with a slathering of Bel Paese cheese and a special concoction of oil and spices. As the young man cuts the bread, Allesandro barrels in and banishes his helper to behind the fridge, and takes over. Two minutes later, the sandwich is done and I'm out the door. I unwrap it and study it. Hmmm. It looks flatter and thinner. But how does it taste? I take a bite, and the dread returns. The thin caponata is there, the artichokes taste like they came from a Price Club barrel, the bread is kind of rubbery. Instead of olive oil and caponata sauce dripping wonderfully onto the wrapping as the sandwich is consumed, the experience is dry and lifeless.
So, my guess is this: After over 10 years of being cooped up in his little shop running a fiefdom, cash is now an issue for the first time. So he's using cheaper ingredients, charging tax, and turning over sandwiches more rapidly. In the past quality was not compromised for anything, now it is profit that is paramount. Maybe his rent was raised and it's this or perish? Maybe he wants to retire with a bundle soon? I can't say. Interestingly, his quest for cash does not extend to his customer service: it is as low as ever (I witnessed an ejection late last year). But to even that out, he did give me a menu in the winter and assure me that he's taking faxes now for large orders. Now I'm waiting to see his scowling face on Melampo Brand (c) Sandwiches in the Dean & Deluca freezer case.
No matter how you cut this cheese, in my eyes the magic of Melampo is gone.