A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from July 09, 2016
Italian Sandwich ("big sandwich” from Angelo Basso)

Angelo Basso of Genoa came to New York City about 1868 and is credited for popularizing the Italian sandwich, which he sold for a nickel. This would later be called the “hero" sandwich, but at Basso’s death in 1908 the name “hero” was not used.

Basso’s store was on Bleecker street, and then later moved to Thompson street. He sold his five-cent sandwiches to spectators at Madison Square Garden’s six-day walking matches in the 1890s.

The New York (NY) Sun described the sandwich in Basso’s obituary on December 19, 1908:

“But about that sandwich that was Basso’s very own. At the back of his store when it used to be at 151 Bleecker street and again after he had removed to larger premises at 206 Thompson street there used to stand a counter, heavy, like a butcher’s block. On that counter there were rows of those big Italian loaves, shaped like a hassock, crusty and golden hued, with specks of the ash still upon them. Then there was a great boiled ham, a cheese, gray and musty as to its shell, and several cylinders of the Italian bologna bound about with foil and twine. One spoke the word, off came two generous slabs of the Italian loaf, a smear of butter was larded in between and a thick slice of ham, of cheese or bologna was slipped in between the two retaining walls of bread like the struts that support a house to be moved. All of this and a smile from Angelo thrown in for five cents.”


Chronicling America
19 December 1908, The Sun (New York, NY), pg. 2, col. 2:
ANGELO OF THE SANDWICHES
DEATH OF ONE WHO FED HIS FELLOW MEN.
For Five Cents He Made A Most Generous Article and Even on Occasions He WOuld Give the Things to Eat for Nothing—A Man Much to Be Mourned
Angelo Basso, who died on Thursday, will be remembered. He did not build memorial arches to span the city’s streets, nor did he design towers that tickle the clouds until they give snow. All Angelo Basso did was to design and build the five cent sandwich, that fills hungry men. The best part of Angelos Basso’s work was that if somebody did not have the five cents to buy the mammoth sandwich of his he gave it away for the asking.

It is very unlikely that any of the homeless ones who stretch out on the Washington Square benches on summer nights and seek protected areaways in winter would think of burning a candle before the altar of the Church of Our Lady of Pompeii down on Bleecker street to light Angelo Basso’s soul on its way in the beyond. It is far more unlikely that one of these homeless would have the price of a candle. Yet it is just possible that the praise of Basso’s memory spoken over the bar in one of the Bleecker street ginmills may avail as much as the flicker of a candle before a shrine. There were many such helps to Basso’s soul in purgatory spoken yesterday by veteran panhandlers who remembered the time when even the most perfunctory whine put up in Basso’s grocery store in the little building at 206 Thompson street brought the jumbo sandwich over the counter.

Louis Basso, one of the two sons Angelo left, answered the ring of the button that was hidden beneath the drapings of crape at the door of the Mills apartments at 183 Thompson street. Louis was asked to tell something about his father and the invention of the five cent sandwich, so broad and deep. Louis was modest, as Angelo had been. He said:

“My father used to help the poor people in this district. He kept a grocery store and made sandwiches—large sandwiches—which he used to sell to the workingmen at the noon hour before any of the restaurants about here sold sandwiches. Yes, I guess he gave many of them away to people who did not the money to buy them. That is all you want to know, I guess.”

But about that sandwich that was Basso’s very own. At the back of his store when it used to be at 151 Bleecker street and again after he had removed to larger premises at 206 Thompson street there used to stand a counter, heavy, like a butcher’s block. On that counter there were rows of those big Italian loaves, shaped like a hassock, crusty and golden hued, with specks of the ash still upon them. Then there was a great boiled ham, a cheese, gray and musty as to its shell, and several cylinders of the Italian bologna bound about with foil and twine. One spoke the word, off came two generous slabs of the Italian loaf, a smear of butter was larded in between and a thick slice of ham, of cheese or bologna was slipped in between the two retaining walls of bread like the struts that support a house to be moved. All of this and a smile from Angelo thrown in for five cents.

Until Angelo gave up his business nine months ago and retired to the rest his age had earned every Italian laborer who dug in the trenches within a radius of half a dozen blocks of Angelo’s store or who shouldered the packing boxes in the dry goods and millinery establishments along West Broadway and Mercer street used to pace it around to Angelo’s at the noon hour, buy a sandwich, pick up an onion at the corner fruit stand and call his meal complete after a glass of wine a Pietro’s across the street. Basso was innkeeper, friend and philosopher to the lot of them.

Then there were those who did not have the price, the vagrants. Whether Italian, Slav or plain American, all of the fellows who used to work the Washington Square district and Broadway along the wholesale plot knew that if they put up any kind of a talk with Angelo they could land the sandwich. Only they mustn’t come too often. Angelo knew a thing or two and he had a big heart, but there was never such a thing as working him beyond the limit. At least that was the talk passed around yesterday when the panhandlers and strays gathered in a knot on the Bleecker and Thompson street corner and watched the wind lift the strands of crape at the entrance to the mills apartments.

Angelo Basso came to this country forty years ago. Three years later he had enough money to start a little grocery store down on Greene street. He sold only spaghetti, oil and rissoto and such simple things. Then when he moved up to the Bleecker street store he began to branch out and to make the sandwiches. That was fully twenty years ago. He sold out his store at the first of last year and then the sandwiches stopped. Nobody around Thompson street wants to give so much for a nickel nowadays.

Old Fulton NY Post Cards
19 December 1908, New York (NY) Herald, pg. 7, col. 3:
“BIG SANDWICH MAN” DIES.
Angelo Basso, of No. 185 Thompson street, known to the east side as “Basso, the big sandwich man,” died suddenly at his home yesterday of dropsy, aged sixty-seven years.

Basso came to New York forty years ago and laid the foundations of a substantial fortune at the six day walking matches in the old Madison Square Garden. He acquired a reputation among the spectators at these events by furnishing a sandwich made from half a loaf of bread. Later he opened a delicatessen store in Bleecker street, which he moved recently to No 208 Thompson street. In his shop Basso maintained his fame as purveyor of generous sandwiches and became one of the important figures of the east side. He left a widow and two sons.

Plans for the funeral include two hundred carriages for friends of the family The coffin is said to have cost $700.

Chronicling America
31 December 1908, The National Tribune (Washington, DC), pg. 8, cols. 1-2:
Angelo Basso, the Italian sandwich man, who died in New York the other day, is another illustration of the fact that honesty is the best policy, and that anyone will succeed in this world who does something better than anyone else, even the making of sandwiches. Angelo sold sandwiches for 40 years, and died at the age of 67, leaving $250,000. He sold the biggest sandwich in New York for five cents, and not only was it big, but it was so good that business men would walk a considerable distance to get one. Years ago, when six-day walking matches were held in Madison Gardens, and people went there on Monday morning and stayed there till Saturday night, Angelo reaped a rich harvest, for he was wise enough to keep his sandwiches constantly on sale, on these occasions. Angelo was a good man, too, for when a person was too poor to pay for one of his famous combinations of bread and meat he gave it away cheerfully to hungry boy or girl, starving man or woman. Angelo Basso’s sandwiches were as unchanging as the revolution of the earth around the sun. They never grew even the least bit smaller, the bread was always just right, neither too old nor too fresh, and the meat was invariably sweet and tender. Of course, he made money.

Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityFood/Drink • Saturday, July 09, 2016 • Permalink