At what point does a place become more than the sum of its parts? At what point do you want to call it great, even if strictly speaking nothing you had was?
Nick Kindelsperger and I went to check out an Italian deli in Ukrainian Village that almost nobody had heard of, Fiore's Domestic Import Deli. Located on a corner in the middle of a residential area, you'd never have a reason to stumble on it if you didn't live there. It could have easily been the local bodega selling nothing more homemade than Budweiser and lottery tickets—but instead we saw signs of in-house industry at every turn. One case had aluminum pans filled with slabs of frozen lasagna and eggplant parmagiana. Another, the kind of cold case which normally held Eskimo pies and Fudgsicles, instead held arancini balls.
In the main deli case there was tuna salad and marinated zucchini. A pizza warmer held what looked like housemade sheet pizza, but also sausage rolls and plastic-wrapped "Mike's Sloppy Joes." In another case there were cannoli and cakes and brownies, all charmingly rough enough that we knew they hadn't come from any factory.
We ordered a cross-section of the sandwiches and, because there was nowhere to sit, went back to the car to eat (and more importantly, take pictures). The sloppy Joe was first; it tasted like ketchup and Open Pit barbecue sauce. Its charms were all nostalgic, but we enjoyed it.
A meatball sub with housemade giardinera squirted orange grease all over us with every bite. The meatballs, alas, lacked an Italian grandma's touch and tasted like ground hamburger.
Italian beef was quite a bit better, house-sliced beef and a nicely spiced broth, which soaked comfortably into the (a little too soft) roll. Nick said it would have placed in the upper middle of his recent deli Italian beef survey, which isn't bad at all.
So basically, most of what we tried fell into the category of "I'd be glad to have this in my neighborhood, but it's not the best I ever had." Yet we loved the place. There could well be gems in one of those cold cases, but more than that, we just loved that there could still be a place like this serving its neighborhood (and unknown beyond it), making so many things by hand purely for the people who live by it.
A construction worker came in and got three subs for his crew. A woman came in for a sandwich and the Italian owners immediately asked after her family. Saint Padre Pio hung behind the cash register, over the liquor. A sign promised that for $5, they'd make your kid a brown paper bag lunch for the elementary school across the street. All the heart in this neighborhood is concentrated in a single shop that probably doesn't take up 400 square feet. What a great place.