Our Deli Bread
Never draw to an inside straight.
Never pet a burning dog.
Never use margarine if there's butter in the house.
And never, ever call your restaurant a New York deli unless: a) It's actually within the boundaries of New York City; or b) You're from New York City yourself, as is your floor staff, your kitchen crew, hostess and counterman. In fact, everyone down to the last undocumented Haitian dishwasher must be a surly, high-strung, short-tempered New Yorker who's only working for you until his book deal/record contract/green card comes through, or her agent gets her that gig as an understudy to the Rum Tum Tugger in the road company of Cats.
If you meet the requirements of b) but your restaurant is in, say, Dubuque, Reykjavik or Denver, then your bread had better be made in-house or come from a family bakery in business for no less than three generations, and all of your deli products -- from your meats and cheeses down to the incidentals like pepperoncinis, sodas and frill picks -- should be ordered from suppliers in The City and delivered daily, without tax or interstate-transit documentation, by blacked-out Learjets landing on an unused utility runway at DIA.
Otherwise, fuggedaboutit. Painting stripes on your ass won't make you a zebra, and hanging a grainy black-and-white print of Grand Central Station on the wall won't make your place a New York deli.
Sorry, but those are the rules. And while I don't have any particular fondness for the better-known Gotham joints (why, in God's name, would I pay twelve bucks for a glorified Greek salad with John Stamos's name on it at the Stage Deli when I could go around the corner to an Armenian lunch place and pay three dollars to eat basturma with the cabbies?), rules like these are important. Without them, you risk winding up in the same fix that some allegedly Italian joints are in, now that one Italian group is actually requiring restaurants that call themselves "Italian" to prove both their lineage and the authenticity of their ingredients.
New York on 17th can't do much about its Denver address, but it gets everything else right except the attitude. The staff lacks the requisite surliness of the real New York article, and, frankly, the deli is alarmingly clean. The dining room, capable of seating even the biggest lunch rush comfortably, is painted a mustardy yellow and filled with comfortable, wrought-iron chairs of the sort that rich neighbors put out on the sundeck; the decor runs to that style-by-association theme, with framed New York Times covers, Yankees-Mets "subway series" paraphernalia and the aforementioned black-and-white art prints hanging on the walls. But the breads (aside from the rye and pizza doughs, which are made in the back) are sourced through New York bakeries, and you can taste that in the thick, heavy flavors that come from East Coast water and sea-level air pressure. The meats and cheeses are all Boar's Head, a top-shelf product used virtually everywhere (although it's not as time-consumingly genuine as the sandwich ingredients at the Carnegie Deli, which smokes, brines, ages and pickles everything right on the premises). And the owner, Danny Pisarra, is a Queens native who did the deli thing for years on Long Island before moving to Colorado. He's opened several places here in the past dozen years, including two New York Deli Ways (both closed) and the new Mendelson's Deli at 600 17th Street. But for the past four years, he and his son, Jamie -- "who's been with me since he was twelve," says Pisarra -- have focused on this spot on 17th Avenue, and they have no intention of moving.
"We see a lot of people from New York, Jersey, Connecticut in here," Pisarra says, his Queens accent still noticeable. "And a lot of people from Florida. That's our main customer, you know? And all of them say the same thing. The staff is too nice to be a New York place, and the bathrooms are too clean."
So, yeah, the Pisarras know from New York delis. They've got that necessary firsthand knowledge of the flavors and tastes they're aiming for. So when I ordered a ham-and-cheese calzone, it came stuffed with a fistful of thick-sliced ham, stretchy mozzarella and ricotta herbed with only salt and a pinch of oregano. On the side was a warm red sauce, a proper San Marzano -- sweet, acidic, slightly damp but not watery, and thick with fat lumps of tomato flesh that need never fear the blender. (The tomato is a fruit and should be treated as such in a sauce: coddled, handled gently and generally left pretty much alone, not mucked up with black pepper and spices. For some reason entirely beyond me, people seem to forget this as soon as they cross the Mississippi into the West. I blame the devious machinations of the American Salsa Advisory Council, but that's a story for another day....)
Making a meatball sub or a meatball parmigiana is delicate business. Alfred Portale of Manhattan's Gotham restaurant gets a lot of ink for being the progenitor of food verticality -- that horrible, misguided trend that makes architectural sculptures out of lobster tails and microgreens in flying spires, buttressed by lamb-chop studs surrounded by a moat of green pea foam -- but the humble sandwich cook rarely receives his rightful props. Somehow, the guys at New York on 17th managed to balance four dense, Italian-grandmother-style meatballs, each nearly the size of a cue ball, on a split sub roll without violating the structural integrity of the sandwich. They ladled precisely the right amount of sauce onto the bread, making it squishy while the tomato solids lent bulk, and then reinforced the entire superstructure with melted cheese (provolone, in this case, but you've got choices), so that everything didn't come squirting out the other end at first bite. It was impressive. New York on 17th's meatball sandwich is an architectural marvel on par with the George Washington Bridge -- and significantly more tasty. Portale can keep on wowing the easily impressed beaux artes crowd; I'll take a good sub, hoagie or bomber any day.
New York on 17th also offers the obligatory huge, stacked sandwiches named after famous people and places. They've got a Giuliani (all the Italian meats, 'kraut and Russian dressing) and a Yankee Clipper (corned beef, pastrami and beef tongue), along with the Carnegie (egg salad, chopped liver, lettuce, tomato and onion) and a triple-decker chicken salad with bacon called the Park Avenue. I tried an Ellis Island that -- in a salute to all the nationalistic possibilities present in cold cuts -- combined rare roast beef, salami, smoked turkey, Swiss cheese and Russian dressing on flash-charred sourdough bread. I have a pretty big mouth, and this was still too big for me. Like one of those spastic little dogs, I had to nip until I'd whittled the thing down to a more manageable size.
There are also sandwiches that aren't named after anyone, including an excellent shaved-beef brisket, warm and juicy and rare, with fresh lettuce and red onions on a poppyseed-crusted kaiser roll. When I added some sinus-clearing horseradish mayo, this transported me not to Times Square but 350 miles west of there, to Buffalo, where beef on weck (a roll similar to the kaiser, but crusted with coarse salt) is not just lunch, but a survival tool when the snow is six feet deep. The Reuben, on the other hand, wasn't nearly as successful. It was cobbled together carelessly, with all the life squeezed out of the sauerkraut and none of its vinegar penetrating the bread or brightening the meat. Plus, the corned beef was so lean and dry that it made my teeth squeak.
They do pizza here -- a half-dozen varieties tossed and assembled by Jeff Cascardi, another Big Apple native. They do breakfast and bagels and burgers, and hot dogs in various ways (not Nathan's or Hebrew National brand, unfortunately, but the Boar's Head all-beef variety). And, of course, Stewart's Root Beers and Dr. Brown's sodas are available, as well as egg creams -- that foaming fountain combination of milk, chocolate syrup and a spritz of seltzer which is a must for any die-hard deli fanatic.
New York on 17th is an authentic N.Y. deli, all right, but some of the customers are clearly tourists. I watched a business-suit-and-power-tie banker type try to place an order at the counter. He had a cell phone pressed to his ear and was apparently listening to an office full of obsessive, fussy underlings all on different diets, then barking orders to the counterman as they came in over his phone. Half a chicken club, no mayo, no mustard, no bacon, on rye, no crusts; a pastrami sandwich but only if it was very lean; a cheeseburger, well done, cut in half, no bun; and what was the soup of the day again? This sort of thing would've gotten the poor yuppie murdered in any of the five boroughs, but at New York on 17th, they took the order with a smile and gave the guy a hot cup of very strong, espresso-rich coffee while he waited.
And Pisarra was right: The bathrooms were spotless. Too bad the vagrant outside didn't ask to use the men's room before he pissed on the back tire of my car. But hey...even something like that wasn't enough to ruin the glow of a good lunch at the deli.
It was just enough to keep me in a New York state of mind.
A New York deli is one thing; an Italian delicatessen is something else entirely. But what, exactly? Although certain hard-and-fast rules must be followed in order for a N.Y. deli to qualify as a Big Apple stacked-sandwich superstar, there's no such consensus on what makes a proper Italian delicatessen. (That busybody group fretting over quasi-Italian restaurants hasn't gotten around to worrying about delis. Yet.) Must an Italian deli sell groceries and dry goods, or is it enough to have decorative salamis and loops of garlic-sausage links hanging above the counter? And what about the crew? Can you staff your place with Boulder ski bums and still, with a straight face, call yourself an Italian deli?
I think so. The reason I can be so strict in my interpretation of the New York Deli Code of Conduct, yet so lax and easygoing when it comes to its ethno-specific cousin, is that there's no curve used when grading an Italian deli. No extenuating factors like attitude, decor or history. When it comes right down to it, if you want to call yourself an Italian delicatessen, only the meat matters.
At Salvaggio's Italian Delicatessen, they understand this. From the moment they take your order until the sandwich hits the wax (paper, that is), these guys know they're nothing but cogs in the wheel delivering meat to the masses. No one's there for conversation, or to consider the sartorial zeitgeist of this spartan, six-table Boulder storefront. The customers come for the sandwiches, and these guys deliver.
You smell yeast and the sharp vinegar sting of Italian dressing as soon as you step through the door. A sign advises neophyte customers that Salvaggio's doesn't take checks, doesn't take plastic and has no time for people who can't make up their minds. It says so right there: "No Umm's." Cash on the barrelhead -- and quick.
Genoa salami, slow-roasted prime rib, Cinghiale pancetta, Italian-import cherry peppers, capicola in both the hot and sweet varieties, lean pastrami sliced thin as paper -- these are the building blocks of Salvaggio's cuisine. A cold Italian sub came layered with salami, provolone, pepperoni and mellow, fat-intensive mortadella without a whisper of the bitter smokiness it can sometimes acquire. A simple ploughman's lunch of prosciutto (sliced a little thick for my tastes) and provolone arrived on a fresh, soft roll unadulterated by vegetables, while a good side of thick egg salad was studded with a microscopic onion brunoise and rough-chopped parsley.
Salvaggio's also puts out breakfast sandwiches with two eggs, cheese and thick-cut pancetta or prosciutto that are worth the demerits you'll get for being late to work. And should I ever end up on death row, the simple combination of fresh-milk mozzarella and greasy, garlic-infused roasted red bell peppers will be pretty high on my list of choices for a last meal.
The bread that Salvaggio's bakes is the spongy sort -- inoffensive and as utilitarian as a framing stud. If you're a crusty-bread person or looking for artisanal loaves, you'll likely find it a little dull and pedestrian, but for those of us who understand that bread here serves only as a delivery vehicle for lunch meat, the rolls do their jobs -- ensuring that we won't walk out the door with a fistful of cold cuts, eating out of our hands like savages.
Salvaggio's doesn't list an egg-and-olive sandwich on the board, which I found disappointing. The lettuce used to gussy up the cold subs had been left too long in the cold table and too close to the other vegetables, so it tasted bitter, as if it had been slow dancing with a bell pepper. And the chicken salad was made -- of course -- with celery, the devil's green. But these small failings aside, the Salvaggio's machine performed its duty admirably, with minimum fuss, zero ostentation and admirable simplicity.
If you're in Boulder and in the mood for a sandwich, it's worth your time. But know what you're after before you step up to the counter. At the height of the lunch rush, they're not kidding about having no time for umm's.
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