If there's one thing my Sicilian great-grandmother's cooking taught me before she died at the tender age of 101, it was that I was going to need to live somewhere with a quality Italian deli nearby. Knowing my lack of kitchen skills could never compete with her pasta sauce, Christmas cookies or cured-meat sandwiches, I made sure before moving that Long Beach had a traditional market at which I could buy homemade sausages, hand-formed raviolis and fresh-grated parmesan by the pound.
Turns out, the city actually has two Italian markets, but the upscale beach vibes of Belmont Shore often keeps me away from Angelo's off Second Street and pushes me towards the grittier Port, to Santa Fe Importers in the heart of the industrial Westside. A continual bastion of 1950s charm, Santa Fe Importers is an Old World Italian general store that has remained mostly unchanged since 1947.
Short shelves are still stocked with imported vinegars, specialty pastas and vacuum-sealed olives and a deli counter serves up hot and cold sandwiches as well as meat and cheese by weight. Members of the Passanisi family continue to helm the operation, which at lunchtime becomes crowded with dockworkers, forklift operators and men in orange vests as they nosh on wholesale-priced meals at the line of stools that runs along the front windows.
More often than not, eating at Sante Fe Importers means ordering something that contains a Marisa product, their house brand of foods. Traditional sausages, meatballs, cured meats and cheeses are all made in the warehouse across the parking lot, making them Long Beach's only consistent purveyor of locally made pepperoni, salami and mortadella. You can try the house deli meats individually on a sandwich, but for the ultimate mashup of salty flavors, get the “Special,” a $5.99 10″ sub (a large comes with double meat for $7.99) that layers imported ham, dry salami and cotto on a white bread roll with mustard, Swiss cheese and Italian-herb dressing.
If I'm really missing my Nona, though, I'll go big with an Italian sausage sandwich, a classic family-reunion specialty that gobs garlic-basil tomato sauce atop a fennel-loaded sausage and sautéed onions and peppers. I love to let it sit wrapped in the logo-bedecked butcher paper for a few minutes until the bread soaks up some of the sauce. It's a secret last step that pulls all the ingredients together into a seamless, unit of tasty nostalgia. Daily made antipasto, orzo and caprese salads are all available in deli cups for a side dish and no brown bag lunch from Santa Fe Importers would be complete without an Italian soda (they have chinotto!) to wash it all down.
In my great-grandmother's absence, Sante Fe Importers has become like my second kitchen, with lunches that feed immediate cravings and an entire store's worth of imported goodies that would make even La Siciliana consider a move to Iowa by the Sea.
1401 Santa Fe Ave., Long Beach, (562) 435-5629; www.santafeimporters.com