376-378 Eighth Avenue, New York NY 10001 (at 29th; map)
Must-Haves: Mixed cold-cut sandwich, meatball hero, roast turkey or pork with mozzarella and brown gravy--on Sullivan Street stirata bread
What You'll Spend: $6.75, including the cost of the stirata (which is big enough for two large sandwiches) and the top-shelf cold cuts
Grade: A+ for the above-mentioned sandwiches on stirato, B for the same sandwiches on Biellese's regular bread
In my capacity as the official reviewer for Serious Eats New York, I feel it's perfectly within my rights to invent a new category of Italian sandwich emporium: the BYOB deli. The B in this case stands for "bread," not "bottle." That's right, I'm advocating--in fact I'm telling you flat out--that if you would like to eat the finest mixed Italian cold-cut hero to be found in New York, you need to bring your own bread to Salumeria Biellese, which from the outside looks like the most nondescript, generic steam-table Italian deli you can imagine. It's even a little nondescript on the inside, too.
Get over how ordinary the place looks and bring your bread, which, if you can swing it is a stirato from the Sullivan Street Bakery or its offshoot Grandaisy. The stirato is, simply put, the most heroic hero bread in the land. It is just chewy and crusty enough to generate a slight noise when you bite into it, but its interior has lovely hole structure and tenderness. For the purposes of this review I bought my stirato at the Whole Foods on Seventh Avenue and 24th Street, a mere five blocks from Salumeria Biellese.
When it is your turn to order, tell one of the countermen you would like a mixed Italian cold-cut hero with the housemade Genoa salami, soppressata (your choice of hot or sweet), capicola, and provolone, made on the bread you are giving him.
Tell whomever is taking your order that you are willing to pay extra for the privilege of eating a sandwich made on your own bread and loaded with these particular artisanally made cold cuts made by Marc Buzzio and his business partner, Paul Valetutti, whose families between them have about 200 years of sausage-making experience. These cold cuts are made from pork from pure-bred Berkshire hogs fed an all-natural diet from Eden Farms in Iowa.
But I digress. To ensure that your sandwich is being made with the good stuff, the "call brand," as it were, watch which shelf your counterman grabs your sandwich fillings from. If it's the upper shelf, farthest to the left as you're facing the counter, you're in business.
Take your tray to one of the plastic-tablecloth-covered tables and behold your custom sandwich, which looks perfect and tastes even better. It is the platonic mixed Italian cold-cut sandwich, and for the rest of your life, all others will pale in comparison. That includes you, my Philadelphian friends; my buddies from Providence, Rhode Island; my Sopranos-loving friends in Northern Jersey; and my North End Boston friends.
Now, there are alternatives. You can have a sandwich made with the Biellese boys' own prosciutto. It's not as good as the best stuff from Parma or even La Quercia's from Iowa, but for this kind of sandwich, it's great. Add some thinly sliced house-made mozzarella (which could be a little milkier) and the house-roasted peppers, and you're set.
If your taste runs to hot Italian sandwiches, hand the counterman your stirato and have them make you a meatball hero with plenty of sauce and grated cheese. The meatballs are surprisingly light and tender. When the sauce and little bits of meatball and a little grated cheese hit that bread, you'll know you're about to eat meatball hero greatness.
Or on Tuesdays, you can get a freshly sliced hot turkey hero (with optional mozzarella) with some brown gravy. The folks at Biellese will, if you ask them, even leave some of the crunchy turkey skin on when they slice it for your sandwich (you do want to do that). On Thursdays, you can get the same sandwich made with moist, delicious slices of freshly roasted pork (it's the pigs, people).
Chicken Parm is always an option, and though it's not the chicken Parm of my dreams (which was made at the now-defunct Corona Heights Pork Store), on a piece of stirato it's a damn fine chicken Parm sandwich. Likewise for the eggplant Parm here (Where are you, CPH's Mary Lou Cappezza, when we need you).
If you follow my instructions to the letter, buying the stirato and ordering the house-made cold cuts, you will be entering Italian hero nirvana. These very same sandwiches on the mediocre, nothing-out-of-the-ordinary bread Salumeria Biellese usually uses, are reduced to pretty good and decent.
The Bread May Yet Rise to the Occasion
So, Marc Buzzio, Salumeria Biellese owner and insanely talented salumi-maker, if you're reading this, don't be surprised if serious eaters really do end up bringing their own bread. And maybe, just maybe, you'll call up Jim Lahey at Sullivan Street Bakery (the number is 212-265-5580) and order some stirato for your store.
And how's this for an update: When I broached the subject with Buzzio while fact-checking this review Tuesday afternoon, he said he was going to experiment with the stirato bread for his sandwiches. That, my friends, would be one huge step for sandwichkind.
Bonus: Photographic Outtakes
Robyn Lee took so many beautiful photos from our visit to Salumeria that we're sharing outtakes with you here.