The Land of Sauce and Honeys
1112 Summer St. NE, Minneapolis;
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.
Like George Delmonico's homemade marinara sauce, a rich, silky tomato sauce that he simmers for ten hours, and cans in big quart Mason jars ($3.95). I've kept a couple of jars of Delmonico sauce on my shelves for years. I've even packed quarts of it home to New York for Christmas, where the perfectly clinging sauce, with its expertly balanced seasoning and bits of sautéed onion are greeted as something of a miracle. A homemade sauce that isn't ostentatiously chunky and showy? It's not really possible to buy old-fashioned, grandma-style homemade sauce today, is it? One year I may try to cart home Delmonico's sausage, a coarsely ground mixture available in both hot and sweet variations, both ways available either loose or in a string of links. The hot sausage is flecked with dried bits of hot pepper, the sweet is fragrant with fennel, and both taste unforgettably fresh, like uncured pork: sausage the way sausage was meant to be, unfettered by overprocessing or unnatural ingredients. Another treasure at Delmonico's is the pickled peppers, inch-thick rings of pale yellow banana peppers (also known as Hungarian wax chilies) suspended in a vinegar brine which allows them to maintain their crisp qualities; they're the perfect snap to add to salads or sandwiches ($3.95 a quart).
Actually, Delmonico's sandwiches are one of the things I discovered while working on this story. I have been coming here for years and never knew you could get a snack to fuel you through your day of cooking. One day I had one of the shop's soft sub-rolls filled with mortadella, ham, provolone, tomato, lettuce, and mayonnaise ($3.69), a yielding, comforting sandwich with just enough spice to keep it from becoming indistinct. Later I had one with ham capacolla, that spicy rolled meat, sautéed bell peppers, and butter. Yum--the combination of intense flavors with the soft bread and sweet butter made for a memorable snack.
Still, what I'll remember most from my day of extended snooping around Delmonico's will be how few of its treasures are revealed by mere casual shopping. On previous visits I've tended to beeline for the sausage, peppers, and sauce, losing energy when contemplating the rest of the store. The place is exhausting to contemplate, crammed from floor to rafters with literally thousands of items, some of them more like museum artifacts than food. (There are a few cans of pumpkin-pie spice waiting to be snapped up by some enterprising antique dealer.) More aggressive poking--coupled with a few tips from Bob and Terry--turned up gems: Imported Italian tuna antipasto, for instance. Popping the cap on the squat seven-ounce jar revealed a slab of tuna in a tomato broth packed around with baby pearl onions, carefully diced carrots, pitted green olives, gherkins, artichokes, capers, and whole mushrooms ($4.89). Bob Delmonico told me this is a favorite among regular customers, who know what they seek: It's delicious stuff, potent and sunshine-sharp. In addition to the hard-to-find real San Marzano tomatoes (widely regarded as the best canned tomatoes in the world), I also found a little tin of Dean and Deluca star anise, imported polenta, bags of all-semolina Italian imported pasta for 99 cents, boxes of organic champagne grapes for $1, and light, anise-flavored pizzelle cookies that George Delmonico makes himself ($2.89 for a bag of six of the large, lacy discs).
"We carry so many items people never see them all," says Terry Delmonico, Louis's son. How many items? Five thousand? Bob and Terry look at each other at that question and shrug. Could be. Sounds about right. No one will ever know. "The longer you're here the less you know," explains George.
The longer I'm here the more I know that George will be in this store every single day, as he has been for the last 34 years. Unless, of course, one of the honeys in front of the corner turns into a Honey. "You don't run advertisements in that paper of yours for bachelors looking for a rich widow, do you?" he asks, winking. Oh, no, I lie to this sweet man: My paper would never...
Then he offers me spumoni. In all the years I've been going to Delmonico's, George Delmonico has always offered me the spumoni. I never get the spumoni. Spumoni, in my experience, is a flavorless slab or ball of tricolor ice cream, at worst freezer-burnt, at best avoided. Oh, what the hey, I'm charmed, let's have the spumoni. Once home I find a pint of Sonny's spumoni ice cream. It's an awe-inspiring blend of intense chocolate-cinnamon ice cream, fresh and nutty pistachio ice cream run through with whole, bright-green pistachios, vanilla ice cream flavored with dark rum, and whole, pitted rum-soaked cherries which create a patch of cherry flavor wherever they land. Every bite is a wonder. How could I have been missing out on something so marvelous? I guess I'm just a product of those post-gypsy-cart generations all too ready to look a gift horse in the mouth. My advice to future generations? When someone calls you honey and offers you spumoni, take it.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Minneapolis & St. Paul dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.