Looking around Just Italy, a deli tucked away just off Veterans Memorial Boulevard near Dorignac's Food Center, it's pretty clear this is a new operation. All the gear and displays are spiffy, and the wear and tear of food service life has not yet had time to fashion the patina of age. But from the moment you enter, the aroma that greets you is simply timeless. It comes from the cured and salted meats, the balls and wheels and slabs of cheese, the bins of olives and other marinating vegetables, the simmering red sauce and meatballs, and the ambient presence of garlic lacing the air. A similar aroma will let you know you've arrived at the landmark Central Grocery in the French Quarter or Nor-Joe's Importing Co. in Old Metairie. Like those delis, Just Italy prides itself on its muffuletta. But what sets this newcomer apart is its large menu of other Italian sandwiches made from the most appetizing denizens of the deli case, plus a short list of pasta dishes built to sate all but the most capacious appetites.
The deli is a family affair headed up by John Bellini II, a veteran of the local food service industry. For two decades, he ran Bell Foods, a meat distributor that hooks up many of the area's fine dining restaurants with their raw proteins. His son and a partner took over Bell Foods in 2006, and last year Bellini decided to open his own gourmet Italian deli.
Bellini did not discard the Rolodex of industry contacts he built up over the years, however, and he draws from a number of domestic and foreign specialty meat and cheese suppliers for Just Italy's inventory. He also has his own all-star family recipes for Italian comfort food. The sausage, made in-house, has a nice balance of fennel and pepper and is used all over the menu, even on a salad. The red sauce for the spaghetti is enriched with sweet bits of roasted pork before it even sees the meatballs.
The sandwich list does its part to liberate the term 'panini" from all the fast-food chains that have applied the name to any tuna fish or processed turkey-breast sandwich squeezed on a George Foreman-like grill. These panini are unmistakably Italian. All are named for Bellini family members, and I suggest introducing yourself first to the one called the Phillipo. There's Italian roast pork loin with plenty of garlic flavor, a sheet of spicy, brick-red capicola and a dollop of soft, sweet ricotta. Another great combination is the Jennie, made with lean, tender Italian roast beef and rosemary ham with a peppered crust, plus a layer of nutty Asiago cheese. The sandwich named for Nina Bellini pairs that roast beef with sweet roasted peppers. The Carlos, with salami, mortadella and provolone, was pretty dry, but there are plenty of other choices for different tastes.
My favorite sandwich here is called the 'Mangia Mangia," which is a fantastic mix of meatball, Italian sausage, red sauce and melted provolone. Meatball and sausage all in one bite might seem like overkill, but if you've ever had the good fortune to be fed by an Italian grandmother " your own or someone else's " then you probably understand how excess can be interpreted as high praise in some kitchens. Somehow, the crusty ciabatta bread is up to the task of containing this formidable filling, and all the way through, you get the competing textures of peppery sausage and garlic-laden meatball.
Sandwiches come with a side dish, which is usually potato salad with olive salad mixed in among skin-on chunks of new potato. This is a great idea, producing either an incredibly zesty potato salad or the most substantial, hearty olive salad, depending on how you look at it.
The muffuletta may disappoint those who judge this local classic by how far they must unhinge their jaws to accommodate a bite. Just Italy's version is not nearly as thick with meat as many others, but the quality is superior. Bellini treats the precise composition as a trade secret, but clearly there is a foundation of mortadella with pistachio nuts and then, I suspect, spicy capicola, salami and prosciutto. All of it is very thinly sliced, as are mozzarella, provolone and at least one other cheese that I couldn't place and Bellini wouldn't divulge. The bread is crusty, armored with sesame seeds, chewy and adequately absorbent for the deeply marinated, fiercely tangy and heavily salty olive salad spiked with whole garlic cloves.
One of my favorite aspects of this sandwich is the simple but often overlooked step of serving it at room temperature. It is not toasted or broiled, nor does it carry any of the chill from the deli cooler. Rather, like an ideal antipasto plate, the excellent meats and cheeses taste thoroughly and genuinely of themselves.
The otherwise sensible adage that one shouldn't go grocery shopping while hungry is null and void here. Even if you just fortified yourself on an entire meal before perusing Just Italy's modest selection of canned and dry goods, it's impossible to resist the mix of homemade fig cakes, imported chocolates, boxes of good-luck fava beans and little glass bottles of anise oil. The aromas of good things waiting at the deli counter across the room are inescapable. It's enough to make you hungry all over again.
- Cheryl Gerber
- John Bellini II has assembled a top-notch assortment of ingredients like cured meats and cheeses at his Metairie deli.