Cafe Society

Carbone's Italian Sausage Deli makes nearly perfect sandwiches

Young man, you're very tall. Would you mind switching on the air-conditioning for me?"

My boyfriend and I had been standing in Carbone's Italian Sausage Deli for a couple of minutes, and we'd already scanned the grubby shelves packed with food imports from Italy, including cannoli shells, canned San Marzano tomatoes and noodles of various shapes and sizes; examined the walls decorated with kitschy photos of the deli, pictures of animals with clever captions and, of course, crucifixes; and finally turned our attention to the meat case, where bowls of olives and peppers shared space with cured pork, and started quietly debating whether we wanted to take home a little sopressata or mortadella.

We'd hit the place during a rare lull, and the staff — specifically, Rosa Lonardo, the short Italian woman who owns the tiny shop with her husband, Nick — had retreated to the back, and it took her a few minutes to realize we were waiting out front to order. But once she spotted us, she wasted no time putting Rob to work on her air-conditioning before she got to work on our lunches.

We'd gone to Carbone's to settle a dispute: Rob had insisted there were no great sandwiches in Denver; I'd insisted that he was wrong. And to prove my point, I'd dragged him to this sliver of a spot in northwest Denver that has been turning out great sandwiches stuffed with meatballs, sausages and salami for 37 years.

From a board of ten or so options, we each ordered a different Italian combo and then watched, ravenous, as Rosa slowly maneuvered a big hock of prosciutto, a log of provolone and different varieties of salami onto the silver blade of the meat slicer behind the counter, talking all the while. "I work hard my whole life," she said in her thick, lyrical accent. "I never had a rich man to solve all my problems." While she expounded on her thoughts, she carefully placed layers of meat and cheese on sliced-open foot-long baguettes (sourced from a Boulder bakery, she told us), methodically topping them with lettuce, tomatoes, pickled jalapeño slices and a little oil and vinegar. Finished with the sandwiches, she wrapped each one in a sheet of white butcher paper, marking it "his" or "hers."

As Rosa concluded her lecture, she handed over the sandwiches and we quickly retreated to our car, since Carbone's has no seating, and ripped open the packaging.

"Okay," said Rob, between bites. "This is a really good sandwich."

I nodded, too consumed to be smug.

The Lonardos came here from Italy in 1962, taking up residence in northwest Denver when it was still a neighborhood with Italian markets and restaurants on every corner — and when Americans still made fun of people from her native country, Rosa remembers. For a while she stayed home raising the kids. But in 1974, she and Nick bought Carbone's from Dominic Carbone, who taught the pair how to make sausages and meatballs the old-fashioned way before turning over the keys to his shop.

Nick and his team still work in a back room of the shop, visible through a door behind the counter, grinding down pork butts and other piggy parts, mixing them with paprika, fennel and garlic before tightly packing the meat in natural casings and refrigerating it. The final product gets sold by the foot to patrons and cooked up for the sandwiches. For meatballs, they add ground beef to the sausage mix, along with a secret blend of spices.

While the neighborhood has changed over the years, with fewer and fewer of the Italian institutions that once flourished here, the Lonardos remain constant.

The first time I stopped in, Rosa was exchanging pleasantries with the handful of people who packed the narrow space, taking orders as she and her assistants behind the counter squeezed past one another. When my turn came, I asked for a sausage sub with provolone and hot peppers; a few minutes later, I was handed a tidy, paper-wrapped package. A few links had been sliced lengthwise, then wedged into that soft French bread, sprinkled with hot peppers, crowned with thick slices of provolone and smothered with tangy, basil-laden marinara. That red sauce nearly overpowered the mild, sweet sausages; I longed to take some home and cook them up with peppers and onions or, better yet, just grill them on their own.

Although I didn't love that sub, I kept returning to Carbone's, eating my way through the menu. The prosciutto sandwich buried the meat under a mountain of sweet mozzarella; although I'd gone for a spackling of hot peppers, I longed for some spicy salami to pep things up. The mortadella sandwich satisfied the kid in me who used to love baloney on white bread, but the adult me was wishing for something to cut through the rich slices of fat-enriched meat about halfway through. And though I loved the piquant, oily sopressata that the deli stocks, thick layers of it on a chewy baguette make for a jaw-tiring meal. But then I tried a couple of Carbone's combos and discovered the meaty harmony I craved.

Italian combo number one — Rob's order — featured thinly sliced mortadella, shaved capicola (lightly spiced ham) and slices of salami topped with a smooth, sweet sheet of provolone. The sandwich had an ideal meat-to-bread radio, but the salt of the cured meat came through more than the other spices. That's why I prefer combo two, which subs silky prosciutto for the capicola, and sopressata tinged with the zest of chiles for the salami. This combo has more bite, especially when topped with peppers.

That sub became my go-to order at Carbone's until one day, looking for something heartier, I finally found the meatball sub. While Rosa maneuvered through the tight space, assembling the components of my lunch and chatting about the problems of youth today (mostly cell phones and credit cards), I could smell the garlic rising from the pot full of meatballs, and started salivating. More white butcher paper somehow managed to hold this monster sandwich together, and I added a bag of potato chips for thirty cents and a can of Coke — which, in the absence of Peroni or Moretti, is about as good as it gets for pairing with Italian sandwiches, the sweet carbonation refreshing against the sodium-bombed meat. When I got outside, I undid the tape on the packaging and started picking at the sandwich, too hungry to even wait until I reached my car.

The big meatballs, redolent with dried red peppers and fennel and that garlic, had been halved, splayed across the bread, then doused with the same marinara. Provolone had been added while the meat was still hot, so that it melted gooily and satisfyingly between the cracks. Pickled jalapeños added both a cool, crisp textural element and more spice. I inhaled the entire thing, dribbling sauce down my shirt.

Although I still like the number-two combo, I dream about the meatball sub. And some days, there's nothing — not even the line at Carbone's, which can easily stretch fifteen minutes when three people are working behind the counter — can deter me from getting one. It's about as close to perfect as a sandwich can get.

The Lonardos' 37 years of experience shows in every bite.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk