Salt&Grinder | A Deli Tradition
The narrative of my life is shaped by food. When I was growing up in New Jersey, Rudy’s was absolutely the best place to get a slice. And Vito’s Deli made the best sandwiches.
The crust at Rudy’s was perfect: crispy on the edges, but firm and pliable in the middle, thin enough to fold in half and soft enough to arc downward as you drew it to your mouth. The sauce was fantastic — not too spicy, not too sweet — and the cheese, not piled on, but real and melty mozzarella. Flavorful, you know? How many Rudy’s pizzas did I eat after school, in one uniform or another, same group of guys, laughing out loud with sauce on our faces?
Funny how memory holds childhood love warm and soft around the edges. Every time a friend visits my Jersey home, we go to Rudy’s. Tigs or Skinhead, Weener or McGinley, those guys, my guys, still love Rudy’s. The backdrop of a broken-down strip mall, the Kmart up the street and bowed parking lot with grass growing through the cracks—all fades away to pizza so glorious, laughter so true here today as when we were children.
The soul of my Denver restaurant, Osteria Marco was born in Rudy’s. I worked hard to capture a style of crust and sauce and flavor. I switched from the mechanical dough roller to hand-toss so I could play with the dough with tenderness, lovingly combining toppings until I got to New Jersey, to the flavor and memory of sitting among laughter and sauce. I arrived at the place I had started when my children, my wife, my partner, my friends sat laughing over slices. In the process of recreating a pizza, I came back to the clinking of glasses and my cares just sliding from my shoulders.
Which brings me to Vito’s. Vito’s Meat Market was our neighborhood butcher shop in the ’80s. Mom went there for beef or lamb or chicken, but from 11-2, Vito made the best sandwich in the city: Tricio Brother’s bread, soft and flavorful; Boar’s Head meats, all but the beef. The beef he would roast himself, slowly, with a big cap of fatback trussed around the outside and tucked over herbs, brought to a pink, succulent medium rare. “Just” a roast beef sandwich, but piled so high with perfectly cooked and seasoned meat shaved transparently thin.
That’s the key to a really good deli sandwich: meat sliced so thin you could hold it to a window and take a peek at the neighbors. Vito’s has been pulling on my memories for years — Mom unwrapping butchers’ paper to fill the house with warmth and happiness, me scooting up the road for a sandwich with ribbons of meat that just… satisfied.
That bread — a cross between a hoagie roll and a baguette — airy with a hint of a crust. That bread tastes like Hoboken to me, soft and slightly sweet, toothsome and substantive.
I think of Vito’s in preparing for Salt & Grinder. I’ll roast and cure on site, everything sliced to order, never ahead of time (too dry) — meat grazed across a slicer at the final minute, and piled on the bread in lazy rivers.
The bread — we’re calling it a grinder roll — took months of back-and-forth with Jeff Cleary from Grateful Bread. Ultimately he lightened my recipe and tweaked it in ways only a true baker could do. I think what we have is wonderful. When I bite into Jeff’s grinder roll, I taste the joy of going home after a baseball game and biting into satisfaction.
Week after week I brought Jeff’s samples into my restaurants, my office. I tasted it with my family. We tried it with different sauces and meats and salads and toppings, and when that bread hit just the right note, it was as much about the people around me, their smiles, eye rolls of satisfaction, as about my childhood and Vito’s Meat Market.
Will my deli sandwiches taste like Vito’s? Unlikely. Impossible, even. If my neighbors come in to Salt & Grinder, if their kids can sit down with just a simple turkey and Boars Head American cheese (yellow) and mayo (the real stuff), if they can do that, over laughter even, and leave satisfied, well, then, then I’ve come home.