Little Italy Mercado (India at Date Street), Little Italy
“Slow down, you move too fast. You’ve got to make the morning last...” Can’t help humming that Simon and Garfunkel ditty. Life’s pouring through my veins again. How not? It’s one of those crisp, sunny mornings, Saturday, day of Little Italy’s mercato, their farmers’ market. Looking down Date Street, with the white and yellow tents and canopies billowing in the breeze, you really feel you’re in an Italian town market. Bong! Bong! The deep bell of Our Lady of the Rosary, the Catholic church at Columbia, starts clanging. Man, that completes the postcard. Perfect place to kill an hour before meeting up with the lovely Carla. She’s having lunch first with her buddy Eva, so I need to scavenge a market brunch.
I come to a tent at the corner of State and Date. Schaner Farms. Has a load of fruits and veggies, $5 herb posies, even edible roses. Uh, roses might be tough on an empty stomach, but what catches my eye is the fresh-squeezed blood-orange juice. Two bucks. That’ll do nicely. The lady, Kayne Schaner, says they squeezed it on their farm in Valley Center last night. It’s red, it’s tart, it’s a darned good start. I ask where she’d eat here at the mercato. “Oh, Sebastien, the French panini guy,” Kayne says. “He buys his basil from me. My daughter Rose always gets his roasted chicken and Brie panini.”
Ah, yes, a moment later I spot a yellow canopy topped by a sign: Seb’s Paninis. And a banner: “Delicious Toasty Sandwiches. Authentic European Eatery.” Sebastien is the guy with the hands working at blur speed and talking ten to the dozen. “M’sieur-dame! The finest paninis outside of my hometown, Marseilles!” He has a young fellow Frenchman, Romain, helping him put the sandwiches together, as he rushes between four little burner-grills, checking progress on each squished-flat six-inch sandwich.
Turns out Sebastien studied law in France, came to California in the surfboard business, and now wants to have his own restaurant.
Looks as if he’s made a good beginning. He has a line of folks waiting to put their order in. I check the list. First up is a roasted-chicken panini with spinach, tomatoes, cheddar, and aioli. Seven buckeroos. Then there’s a “Paris Paris” panini with ham, Brie, spinach, and aioli ($8), and an “Exquisite,” with prosciutto, mozzarella — ham and cheese again — basil, tomatoes, and “herbes de Provençe ($7).” They even have a tuna melt ($7) and a breakfast panini with egg, bacon, spinach, cheddar, aioli, and basil ($8). Oh, and dessert panini: banana and Nutella ($6) or hot apple with brown sugar and cinnamon ($6). So I join the line, hemming and hawing between the roasted chicken and the Paris Paris. When it comes down to it, I go for the Exquisite, maybe because prosciutto tastes less Spammy than straight ham. And, while I’m at it, I add a banana dessert panini.
I juggle them hot in my hands over to Cafe Virtuoso next door, an organic coffee tent, where this switched-on coffee guy Stephan talks about the stuff like a wine buff.
“The Peruvian roast is low acidic,” he says, “but it has a smoky tone that still finishes clean. The El Salvadoran has mild acidity, with a brightness that tingles on the side and back of your tongue, with citrusy sides, but also chocolatey notes. Combine them and you get pleasant, bright notes and no bitter overtones.”
Wow. What can I say? I buy a 16-ounce Peruvian-Salvadoran for $2 and head down Date to where it crosses India, where I hear a voice singing. Sounds kinda like Bonnie Raitt. Oh, man. I sit down on one of the chairs under a green “Mercato” banner, among red “Little Italy” umbrellas, and I’m right next to apple-cheeked Lisa Campbell, the gal who’s belting out “Hotel California.” Her voice has bright, citrusy notes but also delivers smoky, chocolatey sides. Heh-heh. But listen, she’s good. In fact, this whole place is great. Sun’s shining through the new-budding trees, breeze is fresca, and my crispy hot panini’s prosciutto/mozzarella/herby tastes really come through. And, yes, Stephan’s coffee is rounded, not biting or bitter. I chomp through the Exquisite in no time and get to the banana-Nutella while it’s still warm. I half wish I’d had the hot apple with brown sugar, but this is sweet, chocolatey, messy. What more could you want?
This is when I notice two ladies, mother and daughter, chasing a sea urchin across their stall table.
“Last one,” says the lady to me. “Want it?”
“Now why would I want that little porcupine?” I ask.
“It’s an aphrodisiac.”
Uh, oh. That’s an interesting pitch. Shall I or shall I not? Hmm…definitely starting to feel an urgin’ for the urchin.
The Place: Seb’s Paninis, at Little Italy Mercato, Date Street, between Kettner and Union, Little Italy; 619-838-2273, market tel 619-233-3898
Type of Food: Italian, American
Prices: Breakfast panini with egg, bacon, spinach, cheddar, aioli, basil, $8; roasted-chicken panini (spinach, tomatoes, cheddar, aioli), $7; Alpine (with ham, mushrooms, cheddar, aioli), $7; Paris Paris (ham, Brie, spinach, aioli), $8; Exquisite (prosciutto, mozzarella, basil, tomatoes, herbes de Provençe), $7; tuna-melt panini, $7; banana and Nutella dessert panini, $6; hot apple dessert panini with brown sugar, cinnamon, $6
Hours: 9:00 a.m.–1:30 p.m., Saturdays
Nearest Bus Stops: India and Cedar (northbound); Kettner and Cedar (southbound)
Trolley: Blue Line
Nearest Trolley Stop: County Center/Little Italy, at Cedar and Kettner