"This is so not Jersey," my Garden State-bred friend often sighs after we pass yet another disappointing deli, bakery, or slice joint while wandering around the city. The food, and the burly men that serve it, are never quite burly enough, or sweet enough, or deliver with enough gruff to satisfy her nostalgic craving for an East Coast Italian-American experience.
Given much of the Bay Area's decidedly un-Italian culture today, it's easy to forget that North Beach as well as the Temescal neighborhood of Oakland used to be filled with actual Italian immigrants and not just tourists looking to spot those red, white, and green flags painted on the street light poles. Throughout the early part of the 20th century, North Beach and Temescal were each their own actual Little Italy, with likely just as much character as their East Coast counterparts.
We still have remnants today, of course, and two of the Bay's most reputable Italian delis are a case in point. Both Molinari in North Beach and Genova in Temescal still garner long waits for their oversized, meat-filled subs (or hoagies, or grinders, or heroes, or whatever). The delis offer almost identical products, in similarly kitschy settings, but does one build a decidedly better sandwich?
Molinari: Molinari Special (Assorted cold cuts, provolone, lettuce, tomato, onion, pepperoncini, mustard, mayonnaise) ($8)
Molinari is about as classic as you can get. The Columbus Street deli was founded in 1896, making it the oldest west of the Rocky Mountains. Today, the company produces a wide variety of sausages and cured meats out of their factory in Bayview, and they sell imported Italian products and a long line of sandwiches out of their North Beach storefront. There's history in the building and you can feel it.
Inside the deli, it is small, cramped, and likely filled with a crowd of people -- locals and tourists alike -- waiting for their lunch. Ordering is a little awkward, as you've got to find your way to the plastic bread box, fish out your chosen loaf, and hand it to the deli man before he'll really listen to you. But once he gets going, your lunch will be ready in no time. Take it to the small tables out front if you're really hungry, or, better, walk the two blocks to Washington Square Park and eat on the grass.
The Molinari special is all about the meat: the double-thick layer of cold cuts contains an array of familiar (fat-flecked salami) and foreign (franken-meat mash-ups of compressed ham, mortadella, and coppa). It's hard to sort out any one slice from another; the sandwich tastes mostly of pork and salt, and that's not really a bad thing. The toppings are less intriguing, and mostly overwhelmed by the massive slabs of cured pork. There's chopped fresh lettuce, a few slices of mediocre tomato, mostly flavorless provolone, mayonnaise, and an abundance of yellow mustard. It's this final topping that almost kills the sandwich, aggressively competing with the cold cuts for domination. It's best to scrape some of it off or skip it all together. Likewise, eschew the cottony focaccia bread for one of the many types of sandwich roll. They're surprisingly tender and moist.
Genova: Italian Combo (Assorted cold cuts, provolone, lettuce, tomato, onion, pepperoncini, pickles, oil and vinegar, mustard, mayonnaise) ($9-$10 depending on bread and cheese choice)
Genova's location, at the bustling intersection 51st and Telegraph in Oakland, is far less picturesque. It's in a strip mall, sandwiched between a Walgreens and a Peet's, making the deli look like it it'd be more at home at a freeway rest stop than in the center of the North Oakland food explosion. Step inside though, and you'll be greeted by the same abundance of Italian products as you are across the bay. Genova was founded a few decades after Molinari's, in 1926, and has had a strong presence in the East Bay and Napa ever since. Today, Genova's customers run the full spectrum of Oaklandites, flocking en masse for lunch 7 days a week.
In other words, it's best to show up long before or after the noon-time rush and grab a number. (Show up too close to the 12 o'clock hour, and you'll likely wait for at least half an hour.) Once the prized number is called, scurry to the front and make your voice heard. The sandwich makers move quickly, and you'll not want to be skipped. At Genova, the counter staff works with precision, weighing each element so that each sub has precisely the same amount of meat and toppings.
Their Italian combo comes with mostly the same array of fillings as Molinari's. Yet they also add a few slices of pickles and a generous drizzle of oil and vinegar -- and it's this addition that sets their sandwich apart. The first few bites of the sub has a delightful tang and richness from the liquid toppings, but it gradually soaks into the chewy bread, which begins to disintegrate. A more restrained layer of unremarkable cold cuts and ultra-fresh lettuce and tomatoes somewhat counteract the sloppiness, but it all gets messy by the time you reach the second half. Eat quickly.
The winner? San Francisco takes this one, as Molinari's quality cold cuts can't be beat.