It’s Saturday, I’m in line at the Pasadena Farmer’s Market. In line? Yes, like any busy market these days, access is monitored and timed to avoid crowding and allow for proper social distancing. Before you pass by the entrance table with the huge bottle of Purell you will likely be standing in the sun on the long sidewalk in front of the high school, spaced six feet apart from your masked neighbors, waiting for the next round of entrances. My girlfriend is parking the car and joins me just as the line moves us into the first lane of the market.
The garlic spread guy is out of garlic spread, but I get some hummus instead. The sourdough baguettes seem a bit more resistant to the touch today, but I get one anyway. The fresh fish folks used to have a guy shucking huge Pacific oysters at a dollar apiece, but no more. Cauliflower, broccoli, tomatoes, a few bags of fresh basil and we’re done. Thank God the Farmers’ Market has stayed open, but like everything else these days, it’s not quite the same.
We end up at Stater Bros. on Washington Boulevard to somewhat randomly round out the shopping trip. As we wheel out of the parking lot, my girlfriend realizes that we don’t have mozzarella for the caprese salad she’s scheming over. “What about Roma Market?” It’s her idea. I haven’t been to Roma for a while. Living an enforced keto lifestyle, I associate the place with my distant longing for exotic pasta shapes and rich tomato sauce. For me, another lost world.
On weekends, there are boxes of fresh produce outside the entrance of Roma Market, and there are several folks perusing the selection as we arrive. Inside, the place is buzzing. There is a line to the back for the cashier and another line along the back wall for the deli counter. The omnipresent and indomitable owner, Rosario Mazzeo, 81, is bussing empty shopping carts and restocking shelves when he isn’t seated next to the door of the backroom holding court with his regular admirers.
I get in line for the counter and manage to order three balls of fresh mozzarella. Of course, I can’t help but notice the quickly diminishing pile of pink paper-wrapped packages stacked to the side, in front of the counter. It seems everyone in the store has snatched at least one, if not several.
If you’re not sure what these mysterious pink parcels are, allow me to introduce you to The Sandwich. Advertised on the market’s outdoor sign, The Sandwich — like its inventor, Rosario Mazzeo — is a local icon. I hadn’t had The Sandwich in a while and my girlfriend had not only never tried one, she was otherwise unaware of its hallowed status.
Repairing to an improvised bootlegged “picnic” under a tree at Pintoresca Park, the trademark pink paper is manically torn away and — all keto prescriptions be damned — my girlfriend quickly examines The Sandwich before ripping into it. This is not an overstuffed hero. Nor is it a sub, a grinder or a muffaletta. Its profile is rather slim and modest. After several huge voracious bites, she pauses before quietly gasping and solemnly pronouncing, “This tastes like Italy.”
Apparently a combination of salami, mortadella, capicola and provolone, The Sandwich is dressed only with a lashing of olive oil across the face of the fresh Italian roll. I’m tempted to grab some mustard, but the oil, the unctuous fat of the mortadella and the subtle heat of the capicola all combine into a uniquely simple and satisfying bite. At $5.50 it’s also a local lunch bargain. For an extra buck you can get The Sandwich on a fresh ciabatta roll, but I prefer the sharp, crusty crunch of the Italian. Either way, this is a legendary local culinary experience.
Only in Pasadena.
As to the precise composition of The Sandwich, feel free to indulge in a forensic dissection, but the actual combination of ingredients will never be disclosed.
“Can I have the recipe for The Sandwich?” I’m back on a relatively quiet Tuesday afternoon. I’m confronting Rosario Mazzeo in the far back corner of the store as he restocks the small but interesting selection of Italian wines. He squints at me with a flash of vaguely derisive disbelief at my impertinence before curtly and clearly saying “No.” He then suggests that I might enjoy a bottle of Forte Ambrone Vino Rosso, which I now feel obligated to throw in my basket. (Of course, he was right. I did enjoy it and came back for another bottle.)
Mazzeo arrived in Pasadena from Messina, Sicily in 1950 to help his uncle who had opened the small market four years earlier. However, it was Mazzeo who began importing high-quality products from Italy for the store. He gestures around the shelves, “I bring all the merchandise here myself…” How has business been since the lockdown? “Very, very busy … my customers come from all over. Santa Barbara, Anaheim!”
The charming cashier, Maria Gurrola, has been at the market 22 years and she points out Mazzeo’s right-hand man Frederico Gutierrez, who has worked at the store for 39 years.
Things don’t change here. “I’m here seven days a week…” Mazzeo proclaims, “If you want to do something right…” He again gestures to the room. “… and my customers want to see me here.” There is no question he is the star of the show.
I catch him wheeling a wooden box of the tell-tale pink parcels to the meat counter. He confirms that he himself makes The Sandwiches fresh every morning, usually with the help of two assistants. When asked how many he sells in a day, he cites an incredibly high number that corroborates Maria’s answer to the same question. He then quickly asks me not to disclose the actual count. “Can I say ‘many, many?’” He nods. Roma Market sells many, many sandwiches every day. (Many, many hundreds …)
My rediscoveries of Roma Market, of Rosario Mazzeo, and of The Sandwich have restored my faith in the changeless simplicity of quality, reliability, and loyalty. The Old Normal is still alive.
Rosario Mazzeo and The Sandwich are living local treasures that should be savored now and honored forever. –