The Land of Sauce and Honeys

Delmonico's Italian Foods
1112 Summer St. NE, Minneapolis;
(612) 331-5466

Hours: Tuesday-Friday 8:00 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; Saturday 8:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.; Sunday 11:00 a.m.-1:00 p.m.

"Honey, do you want a sample?" asks George Delmonico, offering a young woman who approaches his deli counter a little slice of salami and a thin piece of provolone cheese, presented together on a slip of wax paper. She takes them, and nibbles while she ponders the jam-packed deli case. "I call everyone honey," Delmonico explains to me, because I'm standing right next to him. "Our attorney said if you call everyone honey you'll be all right. It's calling one person honey that gets you in trouble." Delmonico winks, his blue eyes lively with mischief. "I call everyone honey, whether they're eight or eighty. One lady told me, 'I come all the way across town to be called honey, because I don't get called honey at home.'"

I dutifully write the above down, and while I'm writing, George Delmonico's son Bob pauses from unloading a truck from Chicago, a truck that just showed up loaded with San Marzano tomatoes, to ask me, "What's your angle here, the Italian gourmet angle, or the sweet, nutty old guy thing?" I'm startled by the question, and can only laugh in response: A little from column A, a little from column B...

At first, I can't figure why I'm so surprised by the question, so I just keep recording George Delmonico's conversation. The woman starts out just wanting some of Delmonico's homemade, chunky, peppery sausage ($2.89/lb.) for the pasta sauce she plans to spend the rest of the day making. But soon she's got some of Delmonico's own ricotta-filled ravioli; a pound of meatballs ($2.99) for later in the week, sweet, soft globes of fresh mozzarella ($3.99 a half-pound); and some Asiago cheese ($6.99/lb.) that she'll find something to do with.

The woman wonders if she's ready to go, but George Delmonico advises she's not: "Honey, you haven't even got started yet--no sauce?" "I'm going home to make my own sauce," she reminds him. "Honey, I know, I just don't want you working that hard," protests Delmonico, winking. At that his customer gets that soft, almost melting look on her face that sends women clear across the city to shop at this crowded little store.

Or, occasionally, clear across the nation. A few minutes conversation with the Delmonicos reveals that they've been profiled on the Food Network--which garners them occasional tourists--have been featured in several national magazine articles, and may well have been written about, somewhere in the Twin Cities, every other week since the Truman administration. They stopped posting their clippings in the Sixties, giving newcomers the sense that they're forgotten about: They're not. You think Madonna clips everything published about her? Guess again.

There's a lot to write about, like the way that George and his brother Louis Delmonico worked side by side for 69 years, until three years ago, when Louis passed on. Louis worked in the family grocery store for 75 years: "He said, '75 years, don't I get a gold watch?' I said, 'Who's going to buy you a watch? If you want a watch, buy yourself a watch!'" says George. "He never got his watch." There's the fact that George Delmonico fought in World War II, in the Battle of the Bulge: "We must have had 1,500 walking casualties, and 2,000 litter casualties," he remembers. "I lost my two best buddies. In combat we got within 21 miles of Italy, where we had relatives living at the time. We never made it to Italy." Then there's George's earliest memory, of sleeping in a grocery basket in the Delmonico delivery truck when the bread truck crashed into it. "They came out and said, 'Why are you crying?' The bread guy tried to deny it, but I was right there!"

If that's not anecdote enough you can write about the fact that George has been working in the store since he was seven. "I used to take the money I earned here and go to the competition to buy penny candy and Guess-Whats"--chocolates sandwiched around a prize. Also, George Delmonico is one of the few that remembers his pocket of Northeast before Interstate 35W cut a canyon through it, back when it was an Italian settlement, back when there were Quonset huts all over Northeast, holding the returning GIs and their families. And if none of that sparks your pen, consider the days when the Gypsies came. "Five or six would come in here, one would try to tell your fortune while the others would fill up their pockets. You'd look outside and see their carts coming, you knew their carts because they were hanging all over with drums. Trouble." Or the time someone who had worked in the store for 23 years dropped dead right where you're standing. George Delmonico still maintains a little-boy-in-the-store demeanor, eyes sparkling while he says mischievous things. And of course, there's the most appealing factor of all, namely the way you can come to the store and gather a storehouse of charm and anecdote, then walk away with excellent food.

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