A new Italian sandwich shop landed on the casino floor of Ellis Island earlier this week. Via Focaccia, whose sandwiches comprise Italian ingredients encased between slabs of the light and airy bread, comes from Sicilian chef Ismaele Romano, who holds the title of World Sandwich Champion at the 2021 International Pizza Expo.
Via Focaccia opened October 20, with a seven-sandwich menu, including one filled with soppressata, cheese, arugula, and a sweet pepper spread, and another with fresh mozzarella, roasted eggplant and tomato, and a pesto aioli. Other than sandwiches, they’re serving antipasto salads, arancini (Italian rice balls), and garlicky rosemary-flecked potatoes.
Not on the menu, however, is the oeuvre that earned Romano his sandwich-making accolade — one that layered porchetta and eggplant between kale and dandelion-infused focaccia. Romano says his menu needs to be kept simple due to space constraints, but that diners can expect a couple specials to occasionally join the line-up.
Limited space meant Romano also had to experiment with the fermentation process. He’s working with a preferment, called a “poolish,” a small piece of dough that he lets sits for 16 to 18 hours before incorporating with the remaining ingredients needed to make the final dough. Using a preferment conserves storage space, since the entirety of the dough no longer needs to be fermented for hours on end. “This way of fermentation also creates something very light, so that when you eat it, it’s almost like drinking a glass of water,” Romano tells Eater.
Growing up in Sicily, Romano learned to make pizza and bread from his grandparents, who owned a small bakery by the beach. Romano recalls his grandparents waking up at 2 a.m. to start their days, which would stretch late into the evenings. Come Sunday though, the entire family had their hands in flour, tomatoes, and more, as they prepared a meal to eat together later in the day.
Romano’s favorite sandwich from that time — and one that’s made its way onto the Via Focaccia menu — is one dubbed “mamma’s chicken,” featuring a fried chicken cutlet, eggplant, Fontina cheese, arugula, tomatoes, and a lemon-garlic aioli. Speaking of the sandwich, he’s reminded of his mother, and how every time he’d leave town for a day or two, she’d equip him with a backpack filled with sandwiches — sometimes up to 10. “I asked her not to make too much every time, but the bag would always be super heavy,” he says. “She’d always say, ‘You need to eat,’ and she’d always make them with chicken cutlet, because I loved it.”
Via Focaccia is open daily from 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. at 4178 Koval Lane.