Every morning John Rossetti braises a brisket. He roasts a pork loin, a chicken or two, mixes a meat loaf. He caramelizes onions and grills vegetables like zucchini and eggplant. Then he piles them all, in various combinations, on three different homemade bâtarde breads he bakes himself. What he doesn't do, however, is operate a restaurant.
Instead Rossetti, a former manager at 1220 at the Tides and erstwhile food and beverage director at the Fontainebleau, puts all that energy into running his three-week-old sandwich shop, called the Sandwich Mill, newly installed in the Blockbuster shopping center in Miami Shores. With his experience in large hotel restaurants, the amount of cooking he does, and the care he pays to his menu, you'd think Rossetti would be the perfect person to open the next big thing in South Beach or Coral Gables. But Rossetti is not interested.
"I'm blessed to have spent so many years in the industry. [But] the hours you work for large hotels are ridiculous," he admits. "I chose this because I wanted to do something community based. I wanted to be more active in the place where I live."
In other words Rossetti is making himself a life along with that pot roast. Most evenings his shop closes at 6:00, though he'll stay open later if a customer has called during the day with an order that couldn't be picked up until 6:30 or so. (Weekend nights the Mill is open till 8:00 p.m.) He's home in minutes, since he lives only five blocks from the shop. And once he's safely ensconced in his house, he might dwell on the gossip some Miami Shores moms confided during the day, or dream up new sandwich combinations. But he's not obligated to return to the Sandwich Mill for the dinner shift, simply because there really isn't any.
Rosetti's not the only one who, qualified to take center stage with a high-profile eatery, is choosing instead to build a business based on the sandwich. Ron Funt, proprietor of the Upper Crust Sandwich Shop on Biscayne Boulevard in downtown Miami, along with his brother Paul Funt, has run a full-service restaurant in Tamarac and is one of the founding partners of Renaissance Bakery, which bakes dozens of kinds of artisan breads in North Miami. But despite the fact that Upper Crust is cafeteria style, Funt says he gives the same care toward the fare and customers that he did at his full-service place. "The difference is, with a sandwich shop, you have a life," he says.
In fact he's so proud of Upper Crust -- and it's doing well enough -- that he currently is debating where to open the next one. "Perhaps on Brickell," Funt muses. "Downtown and Brickell are like two different countries."
True enough, and that analogy also can be applied to lunch eateries like Upper Crust and, say, Subway. Like the Sandwich Mill, the brothers concentrate on upgrading sandwiches via their fillings. For instance roast beef is enhanced with horseradish, mayonnaise, and caramelized onions. But the Funts also are determined to highlight the breads they get from Renaissance, so a simple peanut butter sandwich becomes peanut butter, jelly, and banana on raisin-pecan-currant bread. Try to order that at Subway, and no doubt the staff will look at you like you're nuts; at that particular chain, breads are restricted to white or wheat submarine rolls.
The emphasis on artisan breads isn't the only way the Funt brothers wish to redefine the sandwich shop. They designed the Upper Crust themselves, and the results are so SoBe: walls are painted cobalt and mustard; floors are broken stone, marble, and cobalt glass; counters are black and chrome; artwork is aluminum and cobalt. "The idea is if you see the effort we've put into the environment, it stands to reason that you should at least try the food."
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A veteran of the upscale sandwich market, Laurent David Kobinger Rabbat is no longer hoping folks will just give his and wife Marissa's gourmet sandwich shop, Paninoteca, just a try. He looks instead for return visitors, and for good reason. The Paninoteca location on Lincoln Road in South Beach is now considered a veteran, not only in the field of sandwich shops but in the realm of restaurants in general, having held forth since 1997. Locals consider the grilled, pressed panini stuffed with sautéed fish or goat cheese and grilled vegetables such staples that they have enabled Kobinger Rabbat to open a second location on Miracle Mile in Coral Gables, called Paninoteca European Sandwiches.
Like his competitors, whom Kobinger Rabbat genially considers friendly, his emphasis is on good, stylish ingredients and a variety of breads like sourdough or ciabatta. His ideas for new sandwiches are endless, and as we talk, he bounces at least four or five possibilities off me. He even chats as he shops for a new kind of grill so he can make a special of sandwich called a pazzini -- like a pizza, but a sandwich, he explains somewhat cryptically.
But his methods are classic. Trained at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, Kobinger Rabbat did his apprenticeships in Europe, where he encountered the sandwich, "in nature very portable," daily. He then returned to Miami, where he grew up, to work in upscale eateries like Mark's Place and Fisher Island. It took him little time to realize, however, that a life behind the stove is sometimes no life at all. Thus Paninoteca, and time to meet and wed his wife and partner.
Still the Gen X Kobinger Rabbat, easygoing as he is, is up for a future challenge. He intends to take Paninoteca to the level of franchise and is looking for investors and venture capitalists. Indeed the enthusiasm for his medium is catching (sure, why not take Paninoteca to Tokyo?) but not, I find, exclusive. Rossetti and the Funt brothers are equally passionate about their sandwich ventures. And though all have unique methods, motives, and ambitions -- not to mention sandwich fillings -- they share one desire: to convince the general public that a sandwich isn't just a sandwich; it's a gourmet meal.