One of the reasons I'm staying married to Laura for the rest of my life: She's got a real good eye for hot dogs.
And it's not just hot dogs, either. She can suss out a decent Mexican spot from a block away, will know -- with just a glance and a sniff -- whether an Italian joint is the real deal. She's my go-to authority on Indonesian food, Vegas hotels, Tijuana donkey shows, cheesesteaks, TastyKakes and all things Philadelphian, and can read, judge and dismiss a menu as shlock in the space of five seconds with all the viciousness and precision that is the hallmark of her sex.
On top of all this is her uncanny ability to find good hot dogs in the unlikeliest places. Like Littleton. Like in the corner of an unreconstructed, dirt-lot strip mall full of Asian restaurants, carnicerías and Mexican check-cashing outlets. Ours is not the most stable of partnerships, given that a large part of it is based on unhealthy, psychotic and combative obsessions with food. I don't know too many other couples that will come nearly to blows over Food Network programming, withhold sex at the mere mention of certain restaurants, threaten divorce over a burnt chicken breast, and mend connubial fences with gifts of fancy chopsticks or midnight tacos. But the hot dog thing holds this marriage together. And when she calls me at work, almost breathless, to tell me she's just driven by a spot claiming to offer authentic Buffalo-style Sahlen's hot dogs and horseradish-spiked Weber mustard, a tumbledown joint halfway to nowhere serving Irish bacon sandwiches (cardiovascular bane of my people) and laughably inappropriate, bastardized and thoroughly spaghetti-Western cheese-steaks made with three cheeses, peppers and red sauce (psychological bane of hers) -- that's how she tells me she loves me.
That she picks it out among all the chain restaurants, the mom-and-pops, the forgettable neighborhood bistros and the sandwich shacks she's driven by on her way to wherever she's going is no surprise. She could no more fail to notice such a thing than I could a sushi restaurant offering free tuna to Irishmen. But that she calls and tells me about it -- knowing full well that I'll get all twitchy and lathered up, then drag her there two or ten or a dozen times until we've both become so sick of the place that it becomes yet another of those restaurants whose mere mention causes hissing, spitting marital discord and the breaking of crockery -- is true dedication.
Without Laura and her infallible hot dog radar, I would never have found the Old Fashioned Italian Deli. The next time I marry the woman, I'm mentioning her hot-dog-finding skills in our vows without the slightest hint of blushing sexual innuendo.
The Old Fashioned has held down its corner of West Littleton Boulevard through two generations, beginning with Tom Panzarella -- a born-and-bred Buffalo native who came to Denver in 1976 as an air-traffic controller and ended up a sandwich man -- and continuing today with Tom and his boy Dave working the counter side by side. It was the controllers' strike in the '80s that sent Tom looking for a new way to make a living, his blackballing by the government that forced him into a drastic re-evaluation of his career path. Having a deli like this -- a neighborhood joint, packed from cracked floor to old ceiling with the smells, tastes and memories of his Upstate boyhood -- was something he'd wanted his whole life. So he spent a few years working at other delis in his downtime in order to learn the business, then took the leap in '86. Never before have I been so happy with the fallout from the cruel economics of the Reagan era. If not for that addlebrained TV cowboy and his vengeful union-busting antics, we wouldn't have the Old Fashioned today. Which, I supposed, just goes to prove that things trickle down in strange ways sometimes, and that even the most wrongheaded policies can bear unexpected fruit.
The Old Fashioned will turn twenty next St. Paddy's Day, and as you step inside, you can feel every day of those two decades folding around you like a blanket of history. The place does not hide its years, has no luster but for that patina of age and hard use that comes from long service to the community. On the outside, the silvered windows are covered with hand-painted advertisements for Sahlen's hot dogs, calzones, deli sandwiches and cold drinks. Inside, the sun floods a cluttered room with dusty shelves, with dry Italian import pastas for sale, with Marilyn Monroe and Sopranos memorabilia -- every piece a gift from a customer, a regular, a friend of the house, each one presented freely, without so much as a demand for a free sandwich in return. The booths are patched and gut-sprung, the tables worn from a million swipes of the rag. Specials and menu favorites are written on construction paper taped to the front of the deli cases and the walls. A collection of baseball hats hangs over the register with its large sign explaining house policy: Cash or check, no credit, no plastic, no exceptions. The whole joint smells like tomatoes that have given their life for a good cause and of pizza dough blistered in the oven that warps the air over the far end of the counter. There's nothing false about the Old Fashioned. You walk in and it just feels right -- comfortable as an old pair of sneakers and like home, no matter where your home might have been.
"People come in here once or twice and they're regulars. Three times and they're friends."
That's Dave, working the counter, greeting customers, jumping over to the ovens to jack around with the pizza stick, answering the phone. He never stands still, and he smiles a lot. He's in his element with flour on his hands and an apron around his waist, and he seems to know everyone who walks through the door -- if not by name, then by what they like to eat.
"I forget people's names sometimes, but I do remember what they eat pretty good," he says, laughing. "So what d'ya like?"
I like everything. Well, nearly everything. The Old Fashioned runs one pasta special every day, and sometimes it's great and sometimes it's just so-so, but it's always homemade, in big pans, Italian-grandmother style. The Panzarellas also handcraft their good, sweet, red tomato gravy every day, and sometimes it's a dead ringer for East Coast style, and sometimes it falls slightly shy of the mark. The cavatappi in red, punctuated by a homemade meatball the size of a fist and fairly sizzling with garlic, was a Brooklyn epiphany. But the conchiglie didn't quite do it for me. Maybe that was because the sheet for that day had said the pasta special was stuffed shells, and I was expecting, well, stuffed shells. Maybe it was because the sauce was a little off -- a little watery, a little less forward. Whatever, it didn't stop me from going back for the gnocchi (imported from Italy) or the tortellini, both done the same way: red, with a meatball, and sweet like the fruit that a tomato really is.
In the tradition of true family delis everywhere, the kitchen (which is to say Dave) throws in peppers with everything, on the side or in the mix -- fat pepperoncini, strips of reds and greens, and all from Ba-Tampte, a company famous for its pickles and peppers ("Ba-Tampte" means "zesty," or something close to it, in Yiddish). He throws in crinkle-cut potato chips, too. Sandwiches, calzones, slices to go -- they all get a pepper or two. Or some chips. Or both. Mostly both. But while I appreciate the largesse, I'm not crazy about crinkle chips, and I've never liked the way that pickled peppers tend to flavor anything that comes within twenty feet of them with their unique, stinging brine.
Still, when the worst a place can do is be too generous, too authentic, or maybe slip up on a sauce once in a while, that's not so bad.
Particularly when there's so much more on the menu that's so good every single time. Those hot dogs, for example: wicked pork-and-beef dogs from Sahlen's, which has been packing and processing in Buffalo, New York, since 1869. They're snappy, with stiff skins, long -- hanging off the length of a good bite at either end -- and done on the flat-grill, bringing out the singular flavor against which all hot dogs that aren't Hebrew National all-beef ought to be judged. The Old Fashioned sets theirs up on fresh buns with Weber mustard (another Upstate fave, the Heintz and Weber Co. having started up in 1922 at the Broadway Market in Buffalo), shaved onions sliced thin as a dream, and a spicy, relish-spiked, red-pepper hot-dog sauce that Tom cooks himself, one pot at a time, in imitation of the sauce used at Ted's Jumbo Red Hots back home.
The pizzas are rustic, hand-stretched, thin-crust versions with crisp bottoms and more toppings than I can list. The fat calzones are shaped like brasciole and served swamped with sauce. They're made thin-skinned, stuffed with ricotta, provolone, mozzarella, romano, pepperoni and handmade spicy Italian sausage, then given twenty minutes in the pizza oven so that the top chars just a little and everything inside turns to Italian lava.
The Panzarellas may roll their own meatballs, make their own sausage and craft all their own sauces, but they don't bake their own bread. They get that from a good supplier, who provides them with dense, chewy, springy loaves that have the sort of sea-level consistency you don't get baking a mile high unless you're a certified genius or have made some sort of unholy pact with the devil. The meats and cheeses for the huge sandwich board come from Massachusetts, from New Jersey, and, in the case of the excellent salami, from Chicago. They've had twenty years to find the best of the specialty purveyors, and the quality is evident in every bite of an Old Fashioned sandwich.
The deli does a roast beef bomber with beef and Polish sausage on a hoagie roll with everything; a wet Italian beef held together with a cap of melted provolone; a meatball sandwich that weighs two pounds. The Reuben is mounted on dark rye, with beer mustard replacing the Russian dressing (a great idea, even if it isn't traditional). The Godfather is a mountain of wispy prosciutto, stinging cappicola, hard salami, pepperoni, provolone, cheddar, mozzarella and sandwich veg (lettuce, tomato and onion) dripping with mayo and sandwich oil. By contrast, the Palermo is simple, tidy and perfect: prosciutto, mozzarella, provolone and veggies, served cold on half a hoagie roll, for less than five bucks.
And then there's the Irish bacon sandwich -- which, now that I know it exists, will no doubt be the end of me. It's basically a mound of Irish pork loin (better known as Irish boiling bacon, cured and dressed, finished with a rind of fat left on, more sweet than salty, and responsible for the death of more Micks than Arthur Guinness and Oliver Cromwell combined) fried up on the sandwich grill and stuffed between two slices of sourdough with lettuce, tomato and mayo. The sandwich is greasy, porky and more addicting to those with certain porcine proclivities than heroin is to supermodels. For me, it's finer than the best salami sandwich I've ever tasted, more beautiful than a new side of prosciutto just coming out of the salt, more dangerous than a live hand grenade.
I'm drooling just thinking about it, already half gone from my desk and on my way back to the Old Fashioned for a couple of dogs and another Irish, hold the tomato. How I went twenty years without knowing about this place is beyond me. How I'm going to survive twenty more years of these sandwiches is anybody's guess.
But I'm going to have fun trying.
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