I’ve written two long pieces about eggs, both for egullet.org. One of them even got me into “Best Food Writing of 2009,”which I never saw coming. Thing is, I’m going to have to set up a new category here called Eggs, because I’m far from cracking the shell of this topic. But the season of Lent and a refrigerator drawer of green peppers has given me the focus to write about that Chicago Italian standby: The pepper and egg sandwich.
Now, I’ve been making myself scrambled egg sandwiches on white toast since before puberty, and it’s still a fine “nothing else in the house” lunch. But I met my fate at a storefront Italian Beef joint on Racine Avenue between Lexington and Flournoy (the heart of Chicago’s Little Italy) in, maybe, 1980. Cathie and I had picked up our daughters at the Near West Side Community Preschool and walked by the storefront, its windows plastered with hand-lettered signs proclaiming those Chicago classics: Italian Beef, Italian Sausage, the Combo and Today’s Special: Pepper and Egg sandwich. The price was indeed special, maybe a buck, so we scrapped our lunch plans of PBJs and applesauce and walked into what felt like a neighbor’s kitchen with a cash register.
The three cheerful ladies behind the counter were definitely products of the ‘hood. I’d never met them, but they had me pegged: “You’re married to Atta Rovai’s grandson, right? How is she? We missed her at the bingo at Our Lady of Pompeii last week. OK, two Pepper and Eggs.”
The peppers lay on the grill in a giant pile, being as they are a key ingredient (along with hot gardiniera)in the Beef, the Sausage and the Combo. One woman (“She looks just like a Rovai, but she must get the blonde hair from your side,”) scrambled a few eggs with a chunked off portion of peppers. She slit a ten inch slice from a loaf of the baguette-shaped woolly textured local “Italian Bread,” churned out loaf after tasteless loaf by either Gonella or Turano bakeries.( Yeah the bread’s useless for anything else except, maybe, garlic bread, but a Chicago Italian sandwich plain isn’t right using something crusty, artisinal or tasty. ) She slapped the pepper and egg mixture into the bread, wrapped it in wax paper, collected my four quarters and said “Thanks, hon. Tell your Nonna Angie Calabrese said hi.”
Sandwiches always tastle better eaten outdoors so we settled onto a bench in Amerigo Vespucci park and sat silent until we’d eaten every scrap and crumb. The two-year olds asked for more. The creaminess of the eggs wedded to the sweet, soft peppers was one of those too-rare gastromic experiences: A New Taste Sensation. Since then I’ve learned that a Pepper and Egg sandwich is the classic Ash Wednesday lunch in Italian American families. Heck, we’ve never kept Lent, but I know what we’re having for dinner — I’d better pull on my boots and walk to the grocery store for that bread.
Note: This doughty blogger wasted fifteen minutes looking for the Italian word for a sandwich that isn’t a panino. Who knew?