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The Italian Bakery made-to-order deli sandwich.
The Italian Bakery made-to-order deli sandwich. Photo by Graham Hicks

What is … a delicatessen?

A deli or delicatessen used to be a food shop with long glass display cases full of slabs of cold cuts or cured meats and wheels of cheeses. The jolly counter clerk would slice as much as indicated in the space between your thumb and forefinger, wrapped in wax paper, then in brown.

The olives and pickled onions and salads in huge bowls were in the next counter case over. Delis always had great bread, from their own bakery or delivered early that morning. In the aisles were all the fixins’ for a great picnic, be it January or July. Anybody remember the Hello Jewish Deli on 124th Street?

Authentic delicatessens are now rare, in part because the big grocery stores are selling reasonably-good product from their own deli counters.

And the definition of a deli has become whatever the proprietor wants it to be. Fancy sandwich shops, butchers selling cold cuts, halal grocers, even convenience stores are adding “deli” to their names.

The Italian Centre Shops (Little Italy, West End, South Side) have always set the standard for delis in this town with hundreds of cold cuts, cheeses and olives. Customers patiently wait out the Saturday morning rush hour until their number is called, tasting samples to pass the time. There’s friendly banter and product-knowledge behind the counter, a hustle and bustle that’s all about deli.

The Italian Bakery (10644-97 St.), around which Chinatown grew, comes from a similar tradition. Its specialty is made-to-order sandwiches on freshly baked torpedo rolls, with a secret savoury sauce, mayo, roasted peppers, mounds of your choice, cut-on-the-spot deli meats and cheese. All this, for $6.50!

Sandwich and Sons (13119 156 St.) in the northwest doesn’t call itself a deli, but features massive (10-ounces at least), deli-style, Montreal-style smoked meat sandwiches. It’s an Alberta first. Sangudo Custom Meats slow-cooks and then smokes the beef brisket haunches off of which Sandwich and Sons carves its sandwich meat. The sandwich is expensive, $12, but justified by taste and volume.

Not so impressive is the latest trendy “deli”, the Dovetail Delicatessen at 10721-124 St. The Dovetail is by Kara and Nevin Fenske who also own and operate the Drift Food Truck. Sorry, this is not a deli, but an upscale sandwich bar, featuring a special “roast of the day” bunwich with a limited amount of good roast meat (pork shoulder when I tried it), a few salads and not much else at this point.

D’Amore’s Mercato Italian Market (4612-99 St.) makes tasty grilled Italian sandwiches – we had a $6.95 Cuban, stuffed with turkey breast, capicola, provolone cheese, garlic pickle and dressing. But the atmosphere is too sleek and clinical to be a true deli.

Our best “delis” reflect Edmonton’s magnificent ethnic diversity, selling specialty meats and cheeses made from old-country recipes. We have some of the best in the country – the Mundare Sausage House (4824 118 Ave.) for Stawnichy’s Ukrainian Sausage, the K&K Foodliner and European Deli (9944 82 Ave.), Polonia Sausage & Deli (10135 Princesss Elizabeth Avenue), Ben’s Meat and Deli on Stony Plain Road and Victoria Fancy Sausage (6508-118 Ave.) Smokin Iron Farms (11401-50 St.) specializes in cold cuts/cooked meats from Alberta’s Hutterite colonies.

On the trendy side is Sunterra – both downtown and on the south-side, and farm-made cold-cuts sold at farmer’s markets, but there’s a hefty premium to be paid.

Coming soon — this fall — is the Local Omnivore meat deli, featuring in-house specialty meats and old-cuts made by the Local Omnivore food truck folks.

I know I’ve missed a few, i.e. the new Cariet Urban Deli with outlets in Crestwood, the Hamptons and St. Albert. If you have a REAL deli you’d like to recommend, please drop me an e-mail or text.