New York Sandwiches, by Way of Lisbon and Naples

Michael Guerrieri (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

Michael Guerrieri (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

[Editor’s note: The story has been updated to reflect some corrections.]

There’s a new cuisine in New York City. It was created by Michael Guerrieri, 44, a chef born in Naples and raised in New York, who moved to Lisbon in his early 20s. Almost 15 years later, he returned to open City Sandwich and shared what he calls his ItaLisboNyorker sandwiches.

Ethnic Eats-04On 9th Avenue, between 45th and 46th streets, Guerrieri’s eatery offers sandwiches heavily influenced by his years spent in Portugal, boosted with the Italian flavors redolent of his Italian childhood. To start it all, he worked with a Portuguese bakery from New Jersey to create a golden, lightly dusted with flour, thin-crusted bread. “I believe one of my missions is to make the world stop eating bread wrapped in plastic,” he says. “We shouldn’t be eating bread from plastic bags that can last weeks without going bad.”

Guerrieri then removes the inside of the bread and carefully layers American, Italian and Portuguese ingredients, like salt cod, octopus, sardines or different kinds of sausages. In the beginning, he couldn’t find the right ingredients and considered buying directly from immigrant families who home-cooked them. Then he looked 10 miles away, to the Ironbound neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, home to a large Portuguese community, and found everything he wanted. “For a long time, some people in the United States have heard about how delicious our food is, how great our wines are, but it never went mainstream,” he says. “These are truly hidden culinary treasures.”

Guerrieri has no reservations using the adjective “our” when speaking about the Iberian country. “I still feel more like a Portuguese than an American or Italian,” he says. “Portugal captured me in many ways especially gastronomically – it’s easy to say I feel Portuguese.” This is noticeable at City Sandwich, a clean, minimalistic space, where only the menu across the wall – divided into the three colors of the Portuguese flag (red for meat, green for vegetarian and fish, yellow for eggs) – really stands out.

One of City Sandwich's "ItaLisboNyorker" offerings. (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

One of City Sandwich’s “ItaLisboNyorker” offerings. (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

Guerrieri moved to the United States from Naples, with his parents and four siblings, as a child. On Long Island, his father made him work at a pizzeria when he was 14. “He told me I was going to do the dishes until I knew what I wanted to do with my life. And that’s how my story in the kitchen started, crying,” he remembers. He ended up opening his own pizzeria at 21 and, around the same time, started a catering service.

In 1997, while vacationing in Europe, he accepted a friend’s invitation to spend a weekend in Lisbon. Three days became weeks and then months. Guerrieri decided to stay and, one year later, opened “Mezzaluna,” the restaurant where he started experimenting with his signature fusion of Portuguese and Italian cuisine.

Guerrieri opened City Sandwich at the end of 2010 and, for four years, he split his time between Portugal and the U.S. He had dual citizenship by then. Last summer, he finally sold the restaurant in Lisbon. “I felt that New York was the place to be right now, but I will always be connected to Portugal.”

All the 24 sandwiches are named after friends. “This was my way to say thank you,” he explains. “Fátima,” made with octopus, is named after the lady who taught him how to cook the mollusk in Lisbon. Henrique takes melted mozzarella, steamed collard greens and the Portuguese alheira. “Nuno” has the strong flavors of morçela, another kind of sausage.

Few Americans know what morçela and alheira are, so the staff is trained to explain the ingredients. “The customers walk in because they heard about this great sandwich with blood sausage,” Guerrieri says. “But they leave knowing that it is called morçela and comes from Portugal.”

Order an Henrique, for example, and you may hear the chef himself explain that Portuguese Jews invented alheira during the Portuguese Inquisition, using only bird meat, to deflect suspicions raised by the fact that they didn’t hang sausages in their smokehouses (today, most of the recipes also include pork).

When it opened, City Sandwich didn’t advertise. Guerrieri says that the first customers carried their sandwiches back to their offices, were asked what it was that smelled so good, and on the same day, officemates were coming in to order their own ItaLisboNyorker.

Interior of City Sandwich (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

Interior of City Sandwich (Photo by Alexandre Soares for Voices of NY)

A few blocks away from Broadway theaters and major television networks, City Sandwich has celebrity clients like the actor Oliver Platt (fan of the morçela) and the television anchor Sam Champion (who goes for the Portuguese bacon instead). Chris Pine, Piers Morgan, and Jesse Eisenberg are also clients. Between 300 and 500 sandwiches are sold every day, the prices ranging from $7.95 to $12.95.

The space has a suggestive slogan – “Eat Good, Feel Good” – and Guerrieri uses no mayonnaise, substituting yogurt sauces and olive oil. But he fights against the healthy food label. “I don’t like the expression healthy, though, because it has become so misleading. I just believe in eating right, giving your body what it needs.”

The menu has options like turkey, ham and chicken, but 90 percent of the customers try something different. “If it wasn’t for the adventurous spirit of the New Yorker, we wouldn’t be open,” Guerrieri says.

That’s why he wants to expand the ItaLisboNyorker cuisine beyond the golden bread in which it was born. But like the culinary treasures he is slowly unveiling, the masterful sandwich chef is keeping his plans a secret for a little longer. “The Portuguese cuisine is one of the best and everyone needs to know that,” he says. “The world needs to know about alheira.”

 

2 Comments

  1. Having tasted Michael’s cooking, I cannot say enough about his skill at pleasing a person’s pallet. His food is like himself… Unique.

  2. Nice story! One should only add that it is called “morcela”, with a ” c”, not morçela

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