Italian Food Specialties - The Tramezzino Sandwich

One of the World's Great Sandwiches is Celebrated in Cremona.

The English Tea Sandwich inspired This Edible Palette for Gourmets and Food Artists.

Tramezzino sandwich at Ugo Grill, Cremona with bresaola, caprino, rucola.
The Marcolino Tramezzino at Ugo's in Cremona. Bresaola, caprino, rucola.
Photo Courtesy of Ugo Grill.
Who doesn’t want a delicate and delicious English tea sandwich? I do, you do, pretty much everyone in northern Italy does. The Italian offspring born of this tea sandwich desire is the famous tramezzino. In 1925, Gabriele D’Annuzio invented these sandwiches as an inspired variation on the English version. He worked at Caffè Mulassano in Torino (still there) and he really knew the hungry inclinations of the Torinesi.

So why should a traveler care about a sandwich? Long lunches in Italy are a pleasure, and reason enough to travel to Italy.  But after a few days of long lunches and dinners it can be a relief to have a meal that isn't such a big deal. But a plain ham sandwich isn't an experience you'll remember dreamily in the depths of winter.  This is the time for tramezzini - simple, quick, authentically Italian, delicious and the food of dreams. Can you even imagine prosciutto, shrimp, and cream of asparagus.  How about a gorgonzola and salami tramezzini with mayo?

Cremona Duomo (Cathedral) and the Torazzo Bell Tower.
Cremona Duomo and the Torazzo Bell Tower.
Duomo begun 1107 AD, the Tower finished 1309.

The classic tramezzino is a small delicate sandwich made with two slices of soft white bread, crustless, spread with mayonnaise and filled with any combination of ingredients that satisfies, challenges, or amuses a needy epicure. Of course the concept has evolved and in some places now you might see the name tramezzino applied and/or misapplied to rolled-up sandwiches or toasted creations, and they might be the size of a matchbox or a multilayered affair half the size of a cigar box. Let others do what they may, here we are speaking of the classic version as celebrated in Cremona. They are hand-sized and the filling-to-bread ratio optimizes the taste, not the appearance.

Tramezzino is a diminutive of the word tramezzo, and it’s originally an architectural term meaning the division between spaces. So if you have an empty space involving your stomach between breakfast and lunch, here’s your snack. Today, it’s also used as an inexpensive, infinitely variable, and delicious lunch, an anytime bar snack, or a consolation for Hungarian train passengers (true).

First a word about the bread. Many people think that pane carre, the square loaf found in every Italian supermarket, is the proper bread to use. Well, it looks the same, but no no no. The proper bread is a particular type, made with milk in the batter to add softness and richness. The bread is soft - not in the way of Wonder Bread - but more in the way of the interior of a Parker House roll that’s freshly made. The whorls in the bread are distinct and supply strength without toughness - a marvel of sandwich physics. It has an almost meltingly fluffy texture, it’s irreplaceable and it's contribution is not to be underestimated.

Making a tramezzino sandwich at Tramezzeria XXV Aprile, Cremona
Each tramezzino is made to order.
Tramezzeria XXV Aprile, Cremona

The other key ingredient is mayonnaise. This recipe is more closely guarded than the bread formula, and apparently everybody has a “secret” ingredient. A particular olive oil? Lemon? White pepper? It doesn’t really matter to your mouth, all you need to know is the stuff is smooth and unctuous and amazing and essential to this specialty.

The selections for the filling begin with the classics, lots of combinations of ham, sliced egg, tomato, artichoke, tuna...and now it's possible to make spectacular forays into new territory - turkey, brie, and even nutella. Tramezzini are available to a degree all over Italy, but especially popular from Turin to Venice, so wherever you find yourself in the north, you can seek them out. However if you strive - as we do - to know the best of Italy, you really want to go to the very epicenter of the modern tramezzini world: Cremona.

The most famous place to get one of these creations is at Ugo Grill.  The founder, Ugo Berti, was a restaurateur who was inspired to perfect this proto-street food almost 50 years ago, and now he's recognized as Il Re dei Tramezzini - the King!  Ugo went to his eternal rest in 2015 at age 87, but his spirit lives on in a tiny, standing-room-only shop filled with happy customers and friendly sandwich makers. Popular with office workers and tourists and laborers alike, the service is quick and the sandwiches are very affordable - about 2.50€ to 3€ (2018). The hard part is choosing from the extensive menu. Hint - it eases the stress to get two or three.

Professional food critic at work.

So now you’ve got the special bread, the special mayonnaise, the classic fillings... at Ugo Grill these are not cut in delicate little  triangles, they’re just handed to you freshly made and whole in a napkin with a smile and out you go. Don't expect a dine-in experience, but if the few tables outside Ugo's are full, head for the Public Gardens nearby, and you have a memorable picnic. After all, that’s why they call it street food, right?  We got one with tuna and artichoke, and one carbonara, which is pancetta and egg, both were fantastic.  You may also encounter tramezzini makers in other cities favoring a different approach - offering the sandwiches in small triangles or thick slabs.  Either way, they're great.

Cremona's Tramezzeria XXV Aprile sandwich shop at lunchtime.
Cremona's Tramezzeria XXV Aprile at lunchtime.

What kind of food reviewers would we be to try only one place? Idiots is the word you're looking for.  So, a few doors down, we went to another Cremona hotspot - Tramezzeria XXV Aprile, with a bit more expansive menu. It caters to a broader market - offering hot dogs, hamburgers, piadini, as well as a large, adventurous and different selection of tramezzini. So, branching out - we tried two more: smoked salmon with asparagus, and shrimp with tomato. Here there's some seating inside and also seating outside in the arcade. The crowd of students and workers was pleasant,and  the tramezzini were very good. Yet, as romantics having been steeped in tramezzini history, we couldn’t help but feel disloyal to the King. Long live Ugo!

Ugo Grill Menu, 2018
Ugo Grill Menu, pre-covid.
Start deciding now. Click to enlarge.

Ugo Grill
Via Antonio Gramsci, 13 Cremona
Phone 0372 20354
Ugo Grill Website  For info, online ordering, and even delivery.

Tramezzeria XXV Aprile
Piazza Roma, 25 Cremona
Phone 0372 750242
Tramezzeria XXV Aprile on Facebook with Menu link

Link: Tourism Cremona (Provincial Site)

Link: Tourism Cremona (Regional Site)

Written by Martha