Fifth Street

January 13, 2022

In this issue: Ismaele Romano is the champion of sandwiches — literally | Who needs Marvel? Filmmaker Joe Lujan makes his own superhero universe | Media Sommelier: Ooh, who’s on the Insurrection Index?


A WORLD CHAMPION is in our midst. Last summer at the International Pizza Expo, Ismaele Romano won the World Sandwich Championship. “I saw the second-place finisher, and it was a really simple sandwich,” he recalls. “I said, ‘If that's second place, who is going to be winning?’ I was surprised at the same time. When they called me, I screamed like a crazy guy.”

While Romano might have been surprised, those who have tried his food were not. The Sicilian expat grew up in the small town of Lentini, learning how to cook in his parents’ kitchen, before further developing his skills throughout Italy. Romano furthered his craft not just in restaurants in his home province, but also in Tuscany, Florence, and Milan.

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Through it all, the theme was always the same for the chef. “In Tuscany and Florence, we focused on the meat and cheese,” he explains. “In Sicily the ingredients are different, but wherever you were, the one thing that didn't change was the quality of the food.”

Simplicity. Respect for the product. That’s the basis of great Italian food — and why it is so hard to perfect. It can be deceptively simple, and it is through restraint, knowledge of the ingredients, and the ability to maximize natural flavors that a master can show true craftsmanship. Do too much and you’ve done too much. That’s the philosophy Romano brought with him when he moved to Las Vegas six years ago — and it’s what guided his way to sandwich stardom at the expo.

It also helped that Romano has a deep sense memory that he frequently taps for inspiration. “In Rome, there is gorgeous porchetta,” he recalls. “You smell it on the street. I thought I could make a sandwich with porchetta and good vegetables.” Those good vegetables — “herbete” — are a mix of kale and dandelion greens. For his winning sandwich, Romano decided to incorporate the bitter blend into his dough, and what he created was a green, flavorful focaccia that was both striking and strong enough to envelope his porchetta. With two bold components, it became a matter of balance. What enhances the flavor of the meat? What fits with the homemade bread? In this case, it was classic Italian ingredients — roasted eggplant, giardiniera (pickled vegetables), and provolone cheese. It all worked in harmony to create something, well, world championship-worthy.

Where does a world champion go after winning with a such a bold statement? Disney World? A global tour with his famed sandwich? The late-night talk show circuit? Or… an off-Strip, locals-friendly hotel known for its bargain steak deals, sports bar, and karaoke nights? That’s right: Ismaele Romano now makes his world-class focaccia at Ellis Island. And not in the café, the Front Yard brewpub, or the karaoke bar. Instead, his tiny kiosk sits across the hall from the Metro Pizza station. The space is even too small to prep his world champion sandwich. In the end, that’s not really important, since Romano is putting out so many other delicious items. Most of Romano’s sandwiches at Via Focaccia cap out at no more than five ingredients — all on that superb, house-made focaccia. There’s the Cotto (right), which features imported ham, Fontina cheese, and béchamel. The not-so-Italian Americano contains slow-roasted turkey, bacon, Vermont cheddar, and avocado garlic aioli.

But what’s perhaps the best sandwich is still not even on the menu (at least not yet): Romanos Chicken Pizzaoila (right) is chicken cordon bleu meets chicken parmesan. The sandwich is stacked with roasted tomato spread, chicken cutlet, shaved parmigiana reggiano, prosciutto cotto, burrata cheese, and fresh oregano.

Beyond the sandwiches, be sure to try the arancini — at Via Focaccia, it’s far superior to the typical fried rice ball you might expect. Instead, this is arancini di pasta with ragu del salumiere. Romano uses leftover meat, and cooks it with onions, carrots, and celery to create a rib-sticking filling to complement the crunchy rice outside.

It’s fitting the Via Focaccia sits side by side with Metro Pizza: The beloved pizza joint’s owner, John Arena, is one of the backers and creative developers of Romano’s kiosk. Arena first came across Romano when the Sicilian was working at another odd location, Contento, the Sicilian-style eatery he ran in Jerry’s Nugget. After tasting some of Romano’s cuisine, “I was blown away his talent and his execution,” Arena says. His decision to invest in Via Focaccia had less to do with profit and more to do with promoting new culinary experiments. “We're in a unique time in Las Vegas and its culinary evolution,” Arena says. “People are doing things that are a little bit unexpected, and there’s enough of an audience to support them. The idea was not to build Via Focaccia and make a bunch of money. The idea was to build it and bring something that hasn’t been here before.”

Romano is on the same page. “The goal of this place is to make people understand what real Italian food is,” he says. “It's really simple food.” But he does hope to eventually build on his simple vision: “A gastronomia,” he says, “where you go in and you see pasta, sandwiches, porchetta, roasted chicken, salumi, charcuterie, cheese, and pizza.” And, of course, his award-winning focaccia.

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IT ALL STARTED with Trikalypse. When Joe Lujan was attending community college in his hometown of El Paso, Texas, he wrote and drew a webcomic featuring the superhero Trikalypse — his own creation, a crimson-hooded freedom fighter who uses her energy blasts and telekinetic powers to lead her fellow superhero warriors — posting installments every two weeks for about a year. Then other things got in the way: finishing school, starting his career as an independent filmmaker, moving to Las Vegas. Trikalypse went on the back burner as Lujan established himself as a prolific creator in the world of indie horror films. After working extensively in horror, including on numerous feature films, Lujan was looking for something different.

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“My agent and my manager had told me, ‘Let’s try to do something more family-friendly. Something not so gruesome. Something for a broader audience.’ And that’s when I went back to my storage and I pulled out all my sketches,” Lujan says. Trikalypse was right there waiting for him, along with all of the other characters he had created to populate her stories. At that point, Lujan didn’t just envision a sci-fi action movie that would broaden his reach as a filmmaker. He envisioned a full-on cinematic universe.

“As a filmmaker, the dream is to want to do a Marvel film,” he says, citing the X-Men as his favorite Marvel characters. “Why wait for that opportunity that may never come? It’s something that’s a pretty big goal and a dream that many people have, that people don’t ever hit. So I decided, I’m just going to do my own universe.” Thus was born the Ravage Reign Universe, Lujan’s own vast world of superheroes, set in a dystopian future that draws just as much from The Hunger Games and Mortal Kombat as it does from the X-Men and the Avengers.

The universe launched with the 2017 feature film The Immortal Wars, starring Jackie Gerhardy as Trikalypse, and featuring recognizable stars Eric Roberts, Tom Sizemore and Bill Oberst Jr. in supporting roles. The Immortal Wars takes place in a future world ruled by the sinister corporation Dominion Industries, led by the megalomaniacal Dominion Harvey (Roberts). Dominion recruits superpowered people known as Deviants and pits them against each other in fights to the death. Trikalypse and her fellow Deviants must escape the clutches of Dominion and bring the corporation down.

“When it first started, it was already being written up to be a trilogy,” Lujan says of The Immortal Wars, and sequel The Immortal Wars: Resurgence followed in 2019. But Lujan (pictured, right, on set) couldn’t resist the idea of making Ravage Reign into the kind of superhero universe that inspired him when he was younger. “With the success that I got with the first one, and the reaction that I got, I thought, why stop there?” Ravage Reign now encompasses multiple feature films, web series, and comic books, all under Lujan’s creative direction. “The plan was for it to grow and expand in any medium possible.” It eventually grew in ways perhaps Lujan himself didn’t expect.

The third Immortal Wars movie, The Immortal Wars: Rebirth, was released in November 2021, and the fourth, The Immortal Wars: Dekay’s Paradox, is in post-production for an anticipated release this summer. Rebirth takes place mostly alongside the events of Resurgence, while Dekay’s Paradox is a prequel exploring the origin of the superhero Dekay (played by Lindsey Cruz). It’s all set to culminate in the fifth film, The Immortal Wars: Redemption. “I like to call Redemption my Endgame,” Lujan says. “This will be the last Immortal Wars installment, but the universe will continue.”

Other Ravage Reign projects on Lujan’s plate include spin-off web series Immortal Legends (gearing up for its second season), upcoming animated series Terminus, and a whole line of comic books and graphic novels. Like Marvel or DC, Ravage Reign has its own intricate continuity, inspiring Lujan to publish a timeline that indicates how all the various stories fit together. “My parents were asking, ‘How do you know where everything goes?’ I can’t explain it,” he says. “It’s just in my head.”

But also like Marvel or DC, Ravage Reign is growing beyond Lujan’s own creative visions. He may be the Stan Lee of Ravage Reign, but starting with The Immortal Wars: Rebirth, the universe has incorporated superheroes from other comic book creators. Spiralmind, a superhero created by Ben Perez and Matthew Rothblatt, and Zane, from Jacob Marmolejo’s comic book The Afflicted, both make appearances in Rebirth.

Lujan's willingness to open the Immortal world to others is turning even fellow creators into fans. "Joe Lujan's inclusive, independent spirit and his do-it-yourself attitude really inspired us to want to work with him," says Spiralmind co-creator Perez. "We felt that Spiralmind would fit perfectly in the Ravage Reign Universe. He encouraged us and made us want to put our best effort in this collaboration. Joe Lujan really is a solid soul."

Lujan has also opened up the creation of the movies themselves, working with other writers and directors on upcoming feature film Obscura, which showcases Ravage Reign character Empusa. “It was really cool to collaborate with writers I had never worked with,” he says, “and let their creativity come in and see how they adapted my universe and my character in their own way.”

For the fifth and final Immortal Wars installment, Redemption, Lujan hopes to expand the scope even further. “I will be reaching out and basically opening up the doors to the universe to any comic book creators that want to see their characters make a cameo in a live-action film,” he says. “I want to bring them on, to give them that chance to see their characters in real life.” He’s also hoping to bring back Roberts and Oberst, who appeared in the first two movies, and to cast other recognizable genre stars. There have been talks with actors Danielle Harris and Kane Hodder about potential roles.

While Ravage Reign still operates on a much smaller scale than Marvel or DC, it has its own dedicated fans. They’ll often approach Lujan at comic book conventions where his Carcass Studios company has a presence, making pleas for the fates of their favorite characters. “It’s weird at first, but then at the same time it’s like, wow, people are connecting to these characters,” he says, and he notes that fan feedback has helped shape his plans for Redemption.

As Lujan and Carcass Studios continue to find success in the indie film world, his franchise ambitions keep expanding. The company recently announced that Lujan’s horror films, including the Rust and Atelophobia movies, form their own universe, dubbed the Darc World. “I’ve always been a fan of sequels and trilogies and just that the story keeps on going,” Lujan says.

He’d still be happy to take a call from Marvel, but Ravage Reign offers him more creative opportunities than the X-Men ever would. “I want to expand it the way other cinematic universes out there are, but in my own way. Basically not having to worry about anyone telling me, ‘We can’t do this with that character,’ because it’s all me. It’s all my characters.”

The Immortal Wars, The Immortal Wars: Resurgence and The Immortal Wars: Rebirth are available for VOD rental and are streaming on Tubi and other free services.

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1. I WOULD TOTALLY rip open this crinkly-fresh, cellophane-encased edition of Media Sommelier with a hearty “Happy New Year!” but, truth, I’m not ready to lean in to 2022 quite yet. I’m still processing 2021. Besides, is it really 2022 anyway, what with this teetering anvil of a thematic 2021 hangover weighing on our first weeks of virginal January — a new COVID variant rampaging courtesy of recalcitrant unvaxxholes; the handwringy anniversary of the failed McGingerclown coup; and people still, like, super into TikTok. As long as we’re flashbacking, tho, let’s flash it back to the hilt!

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Check this out: Insurrection Index. For everyone keeping grim score of American democracy’s slo-mo #failarmy collapse at home, the Insurrection Index is a “searchable database of records on individuals and organizations in positions of public trust who were involved in the deadly attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021.” And whaddya know, they even have a clickety U.S. map where you can see Nevada’s connections to Jan. 6: Most notably, Nevada Assemblywoman Annie Black, a frothily loyal perpetuator of the Big Lie and “Stop the Steal” rally attendee. You can also read her breathtakingly dense apologia of the insurrection here, in which she describes the violent attack as though she’s, I dunno, watching an Apple TV screensaver or something: “From the distance, we watched the crowd first stop at the bottom of the middle steps. Then they went a little further up. Then a little more. Until they got to the top. Then the entire building was surrounded and people somehow got inside.” I see a dim future for democracy, but a bright future for Annie Black’s fan fiction on the Q forums.

2. Didn’t read as much as I’d wanted to last year, but who ever does? (Don’t answer I will hate you.) Pro tip for assuaging book guilt: I peruse year-end lists such as “The 50 Best Book Covers of 2021” and marvel at the honorees with such conscious, intent, purposeful appreciation that I manage to convince myself that at some quantum level I’m osmotically absorbing the writing itself! (Add in a little smart-people’s-2021-roundup, and, voila, you have the approximation of belated compensatory literary consumption!)

2a. However! Why moon idly over the book designs of others when you can make your own? That’s what renowned Dutch illustrator Ootje Oxenaar did when he found that much of the spine art on his bookshelves was blah. “With no apparent purpose, the redo of spines was an everyday, ordinary practice,” writes Dawn Oxenaar Barrett in the foreword to a recently published chapbook celebrating his homegrown spine illustrations, aptly titled Ootje Oxenaar Spines. “Using ink, watercolor, colored pencil and opaque white, Oxenaar made new spines by hand on the inside of the original printed jackets. … As a way to replace an annoying typeface or an ill-considered design.” As an inveterate and terminally unskilled doodler, I’m looking forward to livening up my home library with my own personal touch of kindergarten moderne.

3. Betty White died on Dec. 31, and I find it painfully quaint and charming that seemingly anyone can (and does) comment on her life, work, and impact on her page at Legacy.com, the Wikipedia of the dead. At a full life of 99 years, White has been praised for her moral character, wisdom, compassion, and feminist values, but writer Jelena Woehr has a brilliant idea for properly memorializing White’s nearly century-long tenure on Earth: “I feel like if we expressed time in units of Betty White we’d be better able to understand the lack of human moral progress,” she recently tweeted. “‘Society has not gotten better at implementing public health measures since the 1918 flu pandemic’ sounds impossible, but that was only 1.03 Bettys ago.” Unspool the full thread for a vertiginously recontextualized sense of the fragile recency of civilization! Andrew Kiraly

4. If you’ve completely binge-watched all your streaming queues and you’re looking for something different — and something with a Las Vegas connection — check out The Scary of Sixty-First. Actress (Succession) and semi-controversial podcaster Dasha Nekrasova makes her directorial debut in this horror movie, now available for VOD rental. Nekrasova, who grew up in Las Vegas and graduated from the Las Vegas Academy of the Arts, is the co-host of the “dirtbag left” podcast Red Scare, and The Scary of Sixty-First takes a similar tone, often coming off like a feature-length online shitpost. Shooting on 16mm film, Nekrasova combines the style of vintage paranoia-fueled horror movies like Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Brian De Palma’s Sisters with modern meme culture. Aimless slackers Noelle (Madeline Quinn) and Addie (Betsey Brown) move into a too-good-to-be-true New York City apartment that they soon discover was previously owned by billionaire sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein. A mysterious investigator (Nekrasova) sends Noelle down the rabbit hole of Epstein-related conspiracy theories, while Addie seems to become possessed by the spirit of one of Epstein’s victims. Nekrasova tries so hard to be shocking and offensive that the movie is often incoherent, but it’s still a striking directorial debut for an artist bursting with weird, transgressive ideas. Josh Bell

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Photos and art: Via Focaccia photos courtesy Ismaele Romano; Joe Lujan portrait by July Castle; film set photo and Immortal Wars poster courtesy Carcass Studios

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