You ever run into an old flame and things are just so different from how they once were that it kind of makes you feel a whole bunch of things? Maybe a little sad, relieved perhaps, mostly nostalgic?
You think about the good times, and remember how sweet they really were at their height, but then you snap back to the present and maybe you notice the former flame’s lost some hair, put on some weight, looks tired or just different. Maybe it’s you, maybe you’ve changed. Either way, it’s not the same and even if the experience of seeing that person is pleasant enough, and you’re ok where you both are in life now, you can’t help but miss how things once were.
Yea, well, that was the experience I had with one of the great loves of my life this week: a sandwich from Antico Noè. When I lived in Florence, Italy, what really does feel like a whole different lifetime ago, I went to Noè more than anywhere else. I tried different things a couple of times but for the most part I got the same panino every time: the # 4, stuffed chicken with prosciutto, mozzarella, sautéed mushrooms and rosé sauce. It was warmed up briefly in a press, wrapped in a couple of napkins and handed over to me by the same hunky Florentine who seemed to never have a day away from the shop.
A few years ago, Antico Noè opened a shop in midtown Manhattan of all places. (Apparently, some enterprising, panini loving Americans bought the rights to use their name here and promised to keep it as close to the original as possible.) I’ve been a couple of times since they originally opened and always had a decent enough sandwich. This past week, I found myself in midtown and actually on the same street as Noè, so I thought I’d drop in for lunch.
Feeling ever nostalgic and wanting to recapture the magic, I ordered my usual, the # 4. Staring at a mural of Florence and the same painted logo from the original shop while an Italian pop ballad played in the empty shop (I was there later in the afternoon, after the lunch rush), I ate my sandwich alone.
It wasn’t bad, by any means. The bread was warm and had been pressed down just right to squeeze everything together and make it easy to eat. The mozzarella, warm and melted, oozed out in long strands. The mushrooms gave their earthy, subtle flavor and weren’t slimy or wet as the sautéed kind sometimes are. The meat was alright, flavorful enough and a nice contrast to the other ingredients, though anywhere else I probably wouldn’t have ordered stuffed chicken. The rosé sauce, my favorite, was tangy and creamy.
And yet… it wasn’t the same. As far as lunches go, I was satisfied yes, but I wasn’t raving. If I had friends visiting from out of town, I wouldn’t insist that they eat there, they way I do with every single person who’s ever asked me where they should eat in Florence over the last ten years. The ingredients were the same they use in Florence, but not the exact kind I’m sure. I doubt it was the exact type of mozzarella, or the same sauce, and the bread was baked here, not there, which has to make a difference. In fact, I had my sandwich on whole grain, which way back when in Florence, wasn’t even an option.
Then again, maybe it wasn’t even the sandwich. Maybe it was the fact that I was in midtown Manhattan, surrounded by skyscrapers and stressed office employees, I myself being one. Maybe the sandwich just tastes better in a city that’s looked the same since before the Renaissance, when you’re in your early 20s and worried mostly about where you’ll go out that night or where to travel next weekend. It’s likely that it was both.
I’m sure New York’s Noè outpost does just fine. I’ve been there during the lunch rush and business seemed to be thriving. Lots of framed articles and media mentions line the wall when you walk in, and I’m sure Instagram has no shortage of dedications from people who studied abroad and then came back to try and relive their Florentine lunches.
But for me it felt too different. Not bad, not good, just different. And since I’d like to keep the memory of that sandwich I loved so very much all those years ago exactly as it was, I think I’ll just hold out on Noè and the # 4 till the next time I’m back in Florence, whenever that might be.