Gruff New Yorker attitudes don't last long on the laid-back, breezy streets of Long Beach, but there is always room for a cured-meat-filled, Italian-style sandwich with some East Coast sass.
Signal Hill's Rocco's Deli Italiano just opened a second location in the East Village Arts District, and its sandwiches, sausages and pastas are proving that the once-plagued First Street storefront (a Quiznos AND a Quiznos knock-off both failed there in the past few years) can be a lunchtime destination worth the extra effort.
Inspired by "Mama's home cookin' back in the Bronx," Rocco's menu is an ode to the wide versatility of Italian meats. Both locations carry 15 kinds of deli meat and make their own sausages and meatballs; the combinations for both hot and cold sandwiches are near-endless. And though you can technically buy these meats by the pound out of the small deli case by the register, the emphasis is less on the authentic Italian deli-and-store vibe (as both Angelo's and Santa Fe Importers are for Long Beach) and more on the take-away concoctions.
Rocco's tries to wrangle some of these options for you into a short list of sandwiches, each named after a neighborhood or landmark in New York. Aside from the pretty pointless veggie ones (the Central Park and Botanical Gardens), there are many combinations of meat slices, mozarella, and lots of oil and vinegar. If you're picky or want to get weird with it, there's a pretty good Build Your Own menu that starts at $6.95 for a 6-inch.
I like to try a different sandwich each time I go since the meats are not your typical salty lunch proteins, and Rocco's is one of the few places in town to even get Black Forest ham and sweet sopressata on the same piece of bread. So far--I've only gotten through half the list--I'm liking the Arthur Avenue the best: mortadella, Genoa salami and sweet capicola on a crispy, white baguette with a sun-dried-tomato spread.
Various shades of soft, pink meat (ordered lightest to darkest) peep out from all sides of the Arthur Avenue, and I'm always tempted to open it up and eat the folded up pieces on their own. But having all three of these cured Italian staples in one bite is part of the experience. The mortadella's bologna-like consistency is offset by little cubes of pork fat, the salami looks and tastes like a big, spicy pepperoni, and the capicola is the thinnest but best cut of all, with veins of fat snaking throughout the pork shoulder, adding to the sweet and salty flavors buried within most of Rocco's deli sandwiches.
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Rocco's pastas are also well-crafted, but I've found the portion sizes are a little gnarly for midday meals (perfect for leftovers, though!). No disrespect toward the traditional spaghetti and meatballs, but if I'm taking some home, I lean toward the linguine puttanesca, if only because my grandmother once told me it was "the whore's sauce" and I love imagining prostitutes accidentally inventing one of the only good uses for pickled capers.
With grab-and-go racks full of such not-often-distributed-in-California snacks as Tastykakes and Wise potato chips, Rocco's is a local spot that provides both nostalgia for transplants and an introduction for perpetual West Coasters. And if you're lucky, the tough-guy owner himself (Rocco?) will walk by briskly and in a thick New York accent say, "Yo, how you doing? You being helped or what?"
Rocco's Deli Italiano, 525 E. First St., Long Beach, (562) 980-7500.