Spleen Sandwiches: An Italian Tradition
All meat tastes like the work it did. It's why kidneys pong of urine—they make it. It's why brains melt like meat jelly—their delivery system is mostly fat. And it's why spleen crumbles in your mouth like a coarse medieval blood sausage. In a sense, that's exactly what it is. The spleen is a deep purple bruise caged by the ribs. It deals in blood—sorting, holding, moving—its soft red pulp held by an elastic casing. Like a lot of offal, mass amounts of spleen disappear into sausages and pet food, but unlike say, sweetbreads or liver, spleen is rarely on the menu.
My friend's father, Mr. Leonardi, is Sicilian and grew up in Brooklyn. He once drove two hours with a hankering for a vastedda, a Sicilian spleen sandwich. Though he lives in Riverdale, every now and then he visits Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens to meet his brother for lunch at Ferdinando's Focacceria, a restaurant whose cow spleen sandwiches have been meticulously documented by offal enthusiasts for the last decade. The restaurant slices it raw, simmers it in lard, and tucks it into a soft sesame bun under a scoop of ricotta.
Recently, I decided to ask if it tastes good.
"It tastes just like what they used to eat when they were boys," Mrs. Leonardi says. Meaning, I think, that when you're 80 and you eat the thing you ate as a boy, it's always good. Or, just as likely, that it can never be good.
The wiry Italian at the counter asks if I've had the vastedda before and I shake my head. I had spleen once, but it was at 9 o' clock in the morning after doing shots with Fergus Henderson. That morning, I could have enjoyed the braised tongue of my own shoe.
"You like chicken liver?" the guy asks. "If you like chicken liver, maybe you'll like this, I don't know."
We have to compare things to other things to describe them, but spleen has very little in common with chicken liver. And the fat French blood sausage I had in mind before is relatively dainty. Spleen tastes like the boiled, grizzly flotsam of a prehistoric monster. Like a fictional creature butchered and left to rot in an ogre's cellar. After a few bites I lift the bun to peek and the sandwich yawns an ancient, meaty stink. The crumbly slices have pieces of chew (artery, membrane, anonymous gristle). Comparing things is tricky: spleen is more like meat than most offal I've had, but less like it too.
Verdict: the sandwich at Ferdinando's is the size of a fist, incidentally, the size of your own spleen, and after eating it you will feel full, which is of course the purpose of a sandwich. It also tastes awful. (Hey, if you want something that tastes good, try what Mrs. Leonardi has for lunch, the five-dollar pannelle sandwich, a squishy bun stuffed with deep fried squares of chickpea batter and ricotta. It's lovely.)
Like so many culinary relics, pleasure is not its purpose. Vastare, the Latin from which the street snack gets its name, means to lay waste. It suggests an act of devastation. And truly, if the universe were running too smoothly for your liking and you wanted to momentarily obliterate yourself with a sandwich, you could do no better than a vastedda. The spleen inside tastes like the work it did. It leaves the rank taste of blood in your mouth, confirms that you're alive, reminds you that you're meat.
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