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City Different gets dream deli

Emilia and Valentina panini from The Deli at Sassella on Johnson Street in Santa Fe. (Molly Boyle/For the Journal)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
Santa Fe does so much so well that it almost seems greedy to notice a few holes in our food landscape every now and then. But I’m not the only hungry lady who has at times lamented the absence of a true Italian deli in our fair city. You know the fantasy: it’s the kind of place Tony Soprano might frequent for what he calls “gabagool” or “super-sod” (capicola or soppressata cold cuts), a good pasta sauce to take home and heat up, or just a sublime cannoli.

Sassella, the year-old contemporary Italian restaurant on Johnson Street helmed by executive chef Cristian Pontiggia, recently made a pandemic pivot to a new venture: The Deli at Sassella. The new menu, available Monday through Saturday for curbside pickup alongside Sassella’s more upscale dine-in or takeout offerings, features an array of prepared foods (sandwiches, lasagna, cannoli, gelato, sorbet). The deli also lists a stellar lineup of house-made and direct-from-Italy staples (breads, pastas, meats, cheeses, marinated antipasti and sauces).

Having lived nearly 11 years in Santa Fe, Lombardy native Pontiggia says, “New Mexico has given me so much. The main thing I can give back is my knowledge of Italian food.” When circumstances permit, he plans to open a space to sell the deli items. He says his main focus, after many customer requests, is to supply locals with delicious Italian imports they can’t find elsewhere in the state.

I was nearly salivating when I pulled up at Sassella’s back door for my first curbside pickup of a weighty meatball panini ($15) and an 11-ounce square of lasagna ($12.95) swimming in marinara. That early dinner was even more swoon-worthy than I’d anticipated, having dined at Sassella a few times pre-COVID. The herb-flecked meatballs, lighter than they looked, but deliciously substantial, were tucked into the house-made rosetta bread, itself redolent of oregano and crusted Parmesan. Troweled with a tangy marinara sauce (also sold by the half-quart for $6.49), the sandwich was structurally sound. One half made a full meal.

The lasagna, marooned in a sea of bright red marinara, was layered with silky homemade pasta, rich ground beef, and oozing pools of béchamel, Parmesan and mozzarella. Each bite of that, too, was light as air, yet deceptively substantial. It was a gift that went on giving for two more sittings after I repurposed the remaining sauce to jazz up some leftover pasta of my own the next day.

Quite soon, I again found myself at the restaurant’s back door. This time, I picked up a cloudy-creamy half-quart of porcini, cremini and white mushroom soup ($9.95, also on the dine-in menu with a drizzle of truffle oil and thyme). The deeply earthy elixir warmed my cockles during this week’s snowstorm, especially with a slice of green chile bread on the side ($4.95 for a panino-sized roll).

Like Tony Soprano, though, I had come back for the cold cuts. The Emilia panini ($15) layered pink cotto ham with marinated porcini, mild and milky fontina cheese, Dijon mustard and crisp romaine leaves. The more robust Valentina sandwich ($15) revealed dark maroon bresaola, Parmesan, sliced tomato, arugula and garlic crisps on bread brushed with pesto mayo. Fifteen dollars is on the high end for a deli sandwich, to be sure. But considering that I, once again, got two meals out of one item, the ends justified the means.

Executive chef Cristian Pontiggia’s signature Sicilian cannoli with tuile shell, white chocolate and lemon mousse from The Deli at Sassella is said to be a happily stressful work in progress. (Molly Boyle/For the Journal)

Speaking of bangs for the buck, don’t miss dessert. We fought fork to fork for the last bite of a delicate Sicilian lemon and white chocolate-mousse cannoli with fresh berries ($4.95), for which another restaurant might have charged twice as much. And I’m still picking, days later, at a half-quart of creamy small-batch pistachio gelato ($4.99).

The Deli at Sassella is a “happily stressful” work in progress, according to Pontiggia. He has ambitions to begin making fresh raviolis for take-home, as well as more house-made cheeses (he currently mostly makes ricotta and is awaiting health department approval for others).

Even in its fledgling state, the deli’s service bears out the small touches that make Sassella’s meals so memorable. Each treat is painstakingly assembled, then carefully packaged and labeled with the item name, initials of the staffer who made it and a helpful use-by date. These superb details add up to one delicious realization: finally, Santa Fe has gotten the Italian deli of its dreams.

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