The Italian Deli
Stroll into any predominantly Italian neighborhood and beyond the usual locales of churches, bakeries, and varied shops stands the long-time cornerstone that is the delicatessen. Often crafted more as a local grocer, the Italian deli sits uniquely from its Central European and Jewish relatives as a place for Italians to find their own “delicious things” that celebrate their culture.
Most might imagine some classic “working class” neighborhood of New York City when thinking of an Italian delicatessen. However, these specialized locales go beyond the Big Apple, even beyond the United States. Visit any town in Italy and you’ll find delis much like those in the US.
Looking into the past...
The history behind these shops is cloudy and unclear, but I’d like to believe they had a start in Italy much like how delis began all over Europe. Perhaps Jewish settlers who made their way to the Mediterranean set up their own stores, but slowly evolved them into the culinary tastes of the region. After all, it was Emperor Charlemagne who gave the Jews a safe haven in his European empire, part of which was Northern Italy.
As the United States saw a large influx of immigrants over the 19th Century, Italians made the move in the late 1800s, mainly due to poor economic conditions from a now unified Italy. You’ve seen it in the movies. Those tiny, tight little New York City neighborhoods with laundry hanging in the air, kids playing in the street, pushcarts selling produce, and Italian spoken all over.
It’s no shock that many immigrants would open up small shops selling homemade or even imported delicacies from the old country. At that point, it wasn’t even the Jews opening delicatessen businesses in Italian communities, but more new generations from Italy who had been involved in the industry.
True Italian Flavor
If there were any one item that in my book would truly define the Italian deli from it’s relatives, it would be salami. The thick loaves of cured dried meat that you’ll see as a mainstay in really any delicatessen.
While most have seen and even tried the typical Cotto Salami found in your local grocery store, Italian delis have always been home to a much wider variety of salami. You’ll never find more varieties anywhere else, and it’s well worth the trip. Slightly sweet, tangy, spicy, fatty, lean, soft, or hard, it’s amazing how much variation can be found in something so simple. Even the pepperoni you might find on your pizza is a variety of salami.
There is more though to the Italian deli than just salami. Most will operate as specialty grocers serving their communities for items such as imported oils, vinegars, wines, fresh pasta, meats, cheeses, salads, and even baked goods such as bread and some pastries. I know every Christmas the Italian delis all over Chicago are alive with sweet Panettone bread.
Beyond a specialty food shop, most Italian delis also serve as an eatery, and they are wonderful spots for a hearty lunch. The Jewish delis might have their corned beef and reubens, but the Italian delis are known for their subs and paninis, as well as handful of choice goodies.
If you happen to visit an Italian delicatessen, here’s what I think you should try:
The Deli Meats: This is a no-brainer. I’ve already told you of the wonder and variety of salami found in any Italian deli, but I’ll also add to look at the prosciutto and mortadella. Prosciutto is a traditional dry-cured ham sliced thinly. Wonderful for antipasti, in sandwiches, or crisped up in the oven. Mortadella will make you think of a bologna containing pieces of pork fat (and possibly nuts or olives). Don’t be grossed, it’s quite flavorful in small amounts.
Paninis: No sandwich more screams “Italian” than the panini. It’s crisp, toasty bread offering gourmet combinations of simple ingredients to delight almost any palate. Most delis will have them ready-made and warm to eat, but they will gladly make you a fresh panini from almost any meat or cheese offered in their cases.
Submarine Sandwiches: Italy did give the us the panini, but Italian Americans gave the world the sub. Known by many names like hoagie, hero, grinder, and baguette, the formula remains the same - long Italian loaves sliced lengthwise and filled with combinations of meat, cheese, and vegetables.
Much like paninis, any deli will happily hand-craft you a sub of whatever ingredients they have on hand, but you can’t go wrong with the classic Italian. While local variants exist all over, the usual commonality is salami, ham, and pepperoni with provolone cheese, lettuce, onion, tomato, and finished with a combination of oil, red wine vinegar, and herbs.
Deli Salads: Whether it’s a side for your sandwich, or a container to take home, the salads found in Italian delis are unmatched. Everything from simple antipasti to complex pasta salads. Even the Mediterranean Tuna Salad found on this site was based off one I tried in an Italian deli.
The Cheeses: I can’t imagine a deli without cheese, and you’ll find some of the best of Italy in most Italian delis. Beyond the homemade mozzarella (most make their own in-house), there are salty, dry cheeses worth trying such as Pecorino, Fontina, and Asiago.
Arancini: One of the most unique Italian delicacies I’ve ever encountered, and I’ve yet to find them anywhere beyond the delis. Balls of rice are stuffed with combinations of meat and/or vegetables, then coated with breadcrumbs before being fried to a crisp. Usually served with a side of tomato sauce.
Homemade Pasta & Sauces: Remember that most Italian delis stand as local grocers of imported and traditional products serving their local communities. You can’t imagine Italian cuisine without pasta, and many good delis will contain offerings of fresh pasta in their refrigerators. Some will make them in-house, but many get theirs from local pasta makers. I honestly think no dry packaged pasta can ever stand up to freshly-made.
Italian Beef: This one you probably won’t find anywhere beyond Chicago, but it’s a staple of most Italian delis around my neck of the woods, and well worth mentioning if you happen to encounter it. Thinly-sliced roast beef is slow-cooked in a pot of beef broth loaded with herbs and spices. The beef is then assembled with sauteed peppers into sandwiches on soft, dense, Italian bread. The sandwiches are usually dipped in the broth before serving.
For those unable to find this wonderful meat in your neck of the woods, I will be posting a recipe down the road. It’s too good to keep in the Windy City.