Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Inspiration Sandwich: Tomato with Provolone & Hot Peppers

It was 9pm on a Friday evening (almost every Friday evening, in fact), circa 1992.

We were sitting in a grimey booth at Fuel Café -- a little hole-in-the-wall coffee shop that made it to Milwaukee just in time to take advantage of a dying coffee culture. The floors bore red, white, and black checkered tile. The walls sagged heavy with local art, hung in the hopes of a fortuitous sale... plopped between dirty posters advertising the latest concerts by the strangest local bands. The bathroom walls told tall tales -- painted and markered up with pop-philosophy, written daily by free spirited patrons inspired by 25 cent refills of piping hot joe.

Peef and I sat there, smoking cigarettes, and sipping the strongest coffee in the universe. It was at one of those tables that we discovered mancala. Ourselves. Poetry. And sometimes a really great sammich. We weren't married. Gosh, we weren't even dating at that point. We were just hangin' out, being friends.

And we were seriously cool.

Gosh, how things have changed.
We didn't start dating until 1996, but we've been happily hitched since 1998. Most nights, these days, we're more likely to be found in our 10x10 foot kitchen than a coffee shop. Cigarette smoking has gone by the wayside, replaced by (hopefully) better habits. Same thing goes for the late-night coffee swilling, which has been replaced (more recently) by things like... sleep.

Fuel went non-smoking in October of 2007.
They cleaned up their grimey booths and put in a new counter. And the owners started building an awesome restaurant empire -- with the likes of Comet Café, Balzac, Palomino, Hi-Hat, and (the newest addition) HoneyPie Café .

Fortunately, some of the good stuff remains. Fuel still has great coffee. And the menus at both Fuel and Comet still feature two of my favorite sammiches:
Toasted Cheesy Tomato
Fuel’s famous gooey sub. The best mozz & provolone, fresh tomato & onion melted with Italian herbs & olive oil on a toasted sub roll.

The Buttafucco
Add hot Italian giardiniera peppers from Glorioso’s to the Cheesy Tom.
Both Fuel and Comet pride themselves in obtaining as many locally sourced ingredients as possible, which is awesome. But, the more we thought about it, the more we realized that we could try our hand at making these sammiches ourselves. And you can't get much more local than that!

Inspired by a handful of Jen Ehr tomatoes from the West Allis farmer's market, we set out to do some damage.
In addition to the tomatoes, we gathered up a few slices of local provolone, some farm fresh red onions, a demi-baguette from the bakery, a handful of herbs from the garden, a spread of mayo, a few shreds of crisp lettuce, and a jar of hot pepper giardiniera... and we were set.
The sammiches were assembled in a matter of moments.
They just needed to be placed under the broiler for a few minutes to make sure the cheese got all nice and melty.
Ah, the memories. So much tied up in a few simple ingredients -- put together in just the right way.
As we opened the oven door, our eyes feasted on the sight. The cheese was melted, the bread perfectly crusty. The smell of fresh tomatoes and herbs hovered right up top, just beneath the briny heat of the hot peppers. We were thrilled. Stomachs growling, we grabbed our sammiches, a couple of glasses of nice red wine, and sat down to dinner.

Taking that first bite was somewhat of a revelation. Somehow, I was transported back to a more innocent time and place -- when all we needed was $5, a good cup of coffee, and some great conversation.

It was a bit like going home.

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  1. What a great and well-written post! Excellent writing, very soulful. Loved it. Have to pass on the sammich, but Burp is about more than just food! But then again, the food is top-notch, I just have to skip the gluten cooties.

    Well done!


  2. Felt like I was there at Fuel with you. Great writing!

  3. Ah, what a seriously sweet post! I can so totally feel it, too. There's nothing quite like a signature dish to imprint your experience and conjure up a moment in time. I've actually been to Fuel Cafe - before it went non-smoking. Thanks for taking us on the journey!

  4. Wow, is that a great-looking sandwich! Love the hot pepper nestled in there.

  5. 1992 was a good year for many of us. Nice memories you've shared! And the sandwich too.

  6. You are inspiring me to make a great sandwich for lunch tomorrow. Looks yummy.

  7. oh wow, those look amazing. we have a cafe here near Boston that sounds very similar, and it's called Diesel. Go figure. And it's still pretty grimy, in a good way.

  8. I love sandwiches that are inspired by the things you see around you. There is just something about the combo of crusty bread and melted cheese.

    Fuel sounds like a fun kind of place, although if it weren't non-smoking it would have driven me crazy in the old days (and congrats on quitting). It's great you have a place so filled with memories.

    Years ago I saw mancala and thought it looked fun, so a friend of mine gave me a game. I haven't ever played it. My husband just isn't interested in learning.

  9. I just want 1 bite, looks sooo good. Figtreeapps

  10. Fuel is just the kind of local place that inspires you. I love it! Great description, felt like I was hanging out with you in the booth drinking over the top coffee.

    The sandwich-YUM!

  11. Love this post. It's like a scene out of my favorite movie, Singles...also circa 1992. LOVE IT.

    Great sandwich. I will have to try that here at home...I think Kid #1 would love it.

  12. What a wonderful story. Thank you for letting me sit right beside you in that grimy coffee shop, hacking down butts and drinking rocket fuel masquerading as dark roast.

    For me it's not sandwiches, though. I get cravings for Futures Bakery mashed potatoes smothered in gravy (at $2.50 it fit the student budget and ate like a meal) and any kind of a greasy fry-up breakfast. Sigh. You're right, 1992 was a very, very good year.

  13. This post truly was an Inspiration to me!

  14. You've gotten me all caught up in the nostalgia of Fuel being a hole in the wall cafe ( I kinda miss it) but those sandwiches make me want to make a trip out there now!

  15. I love a sammich with fresh herbs and melted cheese. These look so good. And although I'd never heard of Fuel before, I get the nostalgia for it.

  16. OMG. I love Fuel Cafe. I have 2 sweatshirts and a giant mug from my days of frequenting it. Just seeing the logo in your first photo made my heart go pitter patter. ;)

    But seriously, their sandwiches are humongous and amazing!!


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