As the weather was heating up last week, I drove by Tess’ on Pleasant Street in Brunswick and had a Pavlovian response: I needed one of their ham Italians. It’s the other perfect Maine summer sandwich, second only to the lobster roll, and no one does it better than this Brunswick institution, which opened in 1955 and remains a family-owned business.
Tess’ is in a reddish-brown shingled building that, in my recollection, hasn’t changed in many decades. The dark interior feels like something out of Diagon Alley to me, except instead of wizards wands, it is stocked with chips and candy and drinks and wine. It feels like 1978 to me. And also 1988. And so on. If you don’t know the place, it may seem like an interesting business decision, but if you do know it, it feels like an answer to every prayer you’ve ever directed at some object of nostalgic affection.
Hervey “Tess” Tessier bought the market in 1955 (changing its name from Pleasant Street Market) and began adding menu items, starting with hot dogs, then Italian sandwiches and pizza. By the 1970s, when I was growing up in Brunswick, Tess was becoming famous for stocking the kinds of wines rarely, if ever, found at the corner store: inexpensive and really good.
Tess Tessier died in 2006 at age 84, having dispensed wine buying advice to generations of Brunswickians, and today his daughters Anne Talbot and Phyllis Lamarre run the place with their husbands. Phyllis tends to make the sandwiches and pizzas, and Anne is the wine expert who may – I hesitate to say this, in case it is Tessier family blasphemy – know more about wine than her father did. If you doubt the organizational system in the shelves in the back of the store where she keeps the wine, just ask for, say, her best cava or prosecco, and she’ll pull it out in seconds while delivering a comprehensive taste profile. Or tell her what you’re making for dinner and your price point, and watch her pick something surprising and perfect in two minutes. Nor are these wines you’ll find at Trader Joe’s.
But this is about lunch, specifically one involving an Italian. Tess’ serves many variations on the classic, including an occasional crabmeat version that my sister favors, but I always ask for the ham, with everything on it, plus pepper and olive oil (no vinegar). Last week, I opted for a large ($4.99) which is 12 inches of soft squishy heaven. You walk out feeling like you’ve got a baton under your arm, layered with pieces of ham, some white sliced cheese, tomatoes, diced onions and long slices of green pepper. It’s all in the right proportion, although it is the rule of any truly good Italian that you will have to pick up some item, usually the pepper, from the greasy paper it is wrapped in and stuff it back in the sandwich as you go. I ate mine in about five supremely happy minutes.
These ingredients are all standard (I do like some black olives as well), so one might ask why this particular ham Italian is so good. Roughly 60 years of familial expertise probably has something to do with it. My theory though, is that the sandwich is flavored with the contentment that fills the place. Tess Tessier started something good, and it never stopped.
WHEN: 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturday, closed Sunday
WHERE: 54 Pleasant St., Brunswick 729-9531. On Facebook.
WAIT: Mere minutes
PARKING: No lot, but usually street parking is easy
WHEELCHAIR ACCESS: Yes, but aisles are narrow.