The one absolute truth about D.C. is that every transplant who arrives here will, within a week, start bellyaching about some ethnic dish, some hometown specialty, some unbelievably orgasmic dining experience that can’t be replicated or done worth a damn in the District. It might be a French baguette, a slice of New York pizza, or an omakase like the one in Los Angeles where the chef serves the fattiest bluefin toro this side of Tokyo.
Casey Patten and David Mazza are two such transplants. They’re from the Philadelphia area, where they were raised on a steady diet of Italian hoagies made thick with the finest cured meats, sharp aged provolone, and a firm, crusty Sarcone’s roll. Shockingly, they couldn’t find sandwiches like that in D.C., not even at A. Litteri, that venerable Italian deli, which the guys like just fine but which doesn’t totally pass the Philly Ninth Street Italian Market sniff test.
The thing is, Patten and Mazza didn’t just sit around and bitch about the sorry state of the Italian hoagie in D.C. They built their own Italian deli, Taylor Gourmet on H Street NE, a neighborhood where, historically, the fried specialty was whiting, not chicken cutlets and cheese ravioli.
Taylor is not an Italian deli like the ones in Philly or even like Litteri, the creaky shop that’s been hiding among the wholesalers in the Capital City Market warehouse district since 1932. Litteri is more aligned with the 19th century than the 21st. It fears wasted space, its shelves packed so tight with product, you have to walk sidewalks, sand-crab-like, through the aisles so your elbows won’t knock anything off the shelves. Litteri is crusty and authoritarian, smelling of meats, dust, and little old men. It’s got enough dirt under its fingernails not to give a crap what you think.
Taylor, by contrast, wants to impress. Its interior design uses rough-hewn materials—wood planks, exposed brick, and metal—that speak of permanence and sturdiness, just the qualities you want from a deli. But aside from the brick, these materials are mostly packaged for form, not function. It’s durability as a fashion statement. The music pumped over the sound system is often lounge, which seems about right.
But then again, this is not the Great Depression (at least not yet), and there’s nothing wrong with form. Earlier generations, Italian and otherwise, suffered through all sorts of Spartan conditions so that their children and grandchildren could enjoy a little goddamn form. Function was for the unemployed. Truth to tell, I like the aesthetic vibe at Taylor. It’s clean and industrial cool. It wants you to linger and surf the Web. Litteri doesn’t care what you do—stay, go, drop dead in the olive oil section.
Taylor’s design says something about Mazza and Patten. It says they have taste, which is evident everywhere, from the shelves stocked with first-cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oils to the Claudio salami stuffed into the meat counter. Now consider the definition of “delicatessen” from no less an authority than Larousse Gastronomique: “A shop, or department in a store or supermarket, selling high-quality, luxury food and/or specialist products. The word, meaning delicacies, originated in Germany in the 18th century.”
Let me give you just one example of how hard Patten and Mazza worked to bring you quality products: When they couldn’t find a D.C. bread they liked, they took samples of their favorite rolls to local bakers to try to re-create them. “No one could come within 20 percent of the roll we wanted,” the 28-year-old Patten told me. So Patten and Mazza went begging to Sarcone’s, which initially played hard to get. The fifth-generation bakery apparently doesn’t sell rolls to just anyone who opens a deli. The owners had to prove their worth, and once they did, they also had to hire a dude to drive to Philly and pick up about 150 fresh rolls a day.
Sarcone’s plays a major role in the quality of Taylor’s sandwiches, which is a good thing, because the owners use these sesame-seed rolls for every sammie. I think they work best with Taylor’s greasier creations, like the expertly composed Church Street sandwich, a classic combo of sausage and peppers. The loaf absorbs just enough grease to soften its rougher edges, while the caramelized onions provide a touch of sweetness to balance the spicy sausage. The sandwich is practically architectural in its balance. Its flavors are pure Italy.
I found similar pleasures in the Callowhill Street (each sandwich is named after a Philly street), a meatball-loaded roll slathered with a garlicky but light-bodied house-made marinara sauce. The bread, with its absorbent crumb and sturdy crust, can more than stand its ground against those Taylor-made meatballs, which would rip apart a lesser loaf; the roll not only maintains its essential crustiness but it also helps throw a blanket on the fiery contents of this meaty sandwich.
The rolls complement the more recognizable Italian hoagies, as well, like the Kelly Drive (prosciutto, sopressata, sharp provolone) and the Passyunk Avenue (Genoa salami, capicola, pepper shooters), in which the bread has forceful and fatty ingredients to interact with. The loaves even work with Taylor’s line of succulent chicken cutlet sandwiches, perhaps because there’s a built-in advantage to the pairing: The thin breast meat is coated with seasoned, day-old Sarcone’s breadcrumbs. Broad Street is the way to go here; the broccoli rabe adds the bitterness you need to help cut through the oil, cheese, and bread.
My major complaint has to do with Taylor’s house-roasted turkey, which the owners decided to do on their own after searching in vain for a brand they liked. The breast meat itself, marinated for more than a day before hitting the oven, is fine in small doses, its bland flavors perfumed with just a hint of herbs. But when the kitchen places a solid wad of that turkey breast into, say, the Arch Street (which also includes roasted red peppers and sharp provolone), the sandwich takes on sub-Saharan qualities. The bread and meat combine for a strangely arid bite, despite the fact that the loaf comes stuffed with a salad bar’s worth of shredded and dressed lettuce.
If you ask me, the bird’s poor performance is only poetic. Turkey is just too New World for an Italian deli, even one that’s re-imagining this musty institution for people who like their coppa with a little lounge music.
Taylor Gourmet, 1116 H St. NE, (202) 684-7001.
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