Five ingredients, endless flavors. That’s why Ismaele Romano of Via Focaccia is the sandwich champ
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.
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’s 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, 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): Romano’s Chicken Pizzaoila 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. Φ
Inside the Ellis Island hotel-casino, ellisislandcasino.com
Chef Ismaele Romano by Christopher Smit