Don't Go Takin' My Bacon

Sometimes nothing but a good deli sandwich will do.

When I die, an autopsy will find two pounds of bacon where my heart should be, so I was taken aback by a recent report from the American Institute for Cancer Research. Buried within the report's sensible tips for improving your diet — eat more whole grains, fruits and vegetables; eat less red meat — was a bombshell: The report's panel of experts recommended we consume no bacon, ham or other processed meats whatsoever.

Note that these experts didn't recommend we eat less processed meat — that, like booze, pop music and black-tar heroin, it's best enjoyed in extreme moderation. We should eat no processed meat. Zilch. Zero. Nada. None.

Now, I love bacon, and while I no longer eat processed lunchmeat very often, I took a ham-and-cheese sandwich to school every damn day from first through twelfth grade, so it holds a special place in my heart. (Blocking an artery, in fact.) Which meant I had three different reactions to the report's recommendation.

Alex Donley continues in his family's tradition
Jennifer Silverberg
Alex Donley continues in his family's tradition

Location Info

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Gioia's Deli

1934 Macklind Ave.
St. Louis, MO 63110

Category: Restaurant > Deli

Region: St. Louis - The Hill

1934 Macklind Avenue; 314-776-9410. Hours: 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat.
111 North Newstead Avenue; 314-531-5704. Hours: 8:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily. (Closed Sun. Deli service ends at 5:15 p.m.)

First, I feared for my health. But what could I do about all the bacon and ham and turkey I'd already eaten? Besides, there are worse ways to die. I could be run over by a bus — on my way to pick up a BLT.

Second, I was convinced the report's panel of experts had been infiltrated by vegans. Of course, the average vegan doesn't have the strength to infiltrate a granola bar, but it felt good to blame someone.

Finally, I really wanted a sandwich for lunch.

In 1918 Challie Gioia opened a grocery store at the corner of Macklind and Daggett on the Hill. In 2007, on that same corner, you'll find Gioia's Deli. The Gioias sold the business to the Donley family in 1980, and the grocery store is now a sandwich shop, but after 90 years Gioia's signature item remains its hot salami sandwich.

My colleague Kristen Hinman inspired me to try this sandwich. A post she wrote for Gut Check, the RFT food blog (www.blogs.riverfronttimes.com/gutcheck), revealed that hot salami is also called Salam de Testa. This, Hinman learned, is made from scratch each morning; the main ingredients are beef and — here my antennae quivered — pig snout.

The squeamish among you needn't worry. Gioia's hot salami might not look like your everyday thinly sliced supermarket salami, but it doesn't look like pig snout either. Gioia's slices the salami thick, but the texture is soft. Not soft like pâté, but with more give than, say, a thick slice of Genoa salami.

The flavor is complex: rich, earthy pork imbued with who knows how many spices and herbs. The finish is peppery, the overall impression funky in the best sense. I loved it.

The sandwich comes with your choice of cheese and garnishes on a basic six- or nine-inch white or wheat sub roll. (Sliced white, wheat and rye breads are also available.) I urge you to try the hot salami by itself at least once — and don't swamp the flavor with too many condiments.

If you're hung up on the pig-snout thing, order the Italian trio sandwich. Here the hot salami is joined by mortadella and Genoa salami as well as your choice of cheese, pepperoncini and onion on toasted garlic-cheese bread. It's as greasy as it sounds and utterly delicious. The pepperoncini are especially welcome, adding bite to the deeply flavored meats.

Gioia's salsiccia sandwich is also tasty. The sausage has a rich fennel flavor and just a touch of heat. The whole shebang — sausage, tomato sauce and (in my case) mozzarella cheese — was messy, of course, but it held together pretty well on the sub roll.

I can't recommend the "New York Philly Beef," a geographical and culinary travesty. Essentially, it's very thinly sliced well-done roast beef with Philly cream cheese. You wouldn't expect something so simple to be so unpleasant, but the combination doesn't work. At all.

Still — as regular Gut Check readers know — there are countless other places in town to find approximations of a Philly cheesesteak. But few of those places offer anything as good as the hot salami sandwich.

The American Institute for Cancer Research probably didn't have Salam de Testa in mind when it issued its report. And, in general, America's food "revolution" has made processed-lunchmeat sandwiches seem archaic. Whether due to a new or greater appreciation of traditional dishes like Salam de Testa or Mexican tortas or the use of better ingredients and more refined techniques, we have more sandwich choices now than we did even ten years ago.

Still, sometimes I just want a sandwich — turkey and ham and orange cheese and shredded lettuce on white bread — so it's nice to find a place as resolutely old-school as Shapiro's Market.

Gioia's Deli is a sandwich shop, with tables for dining and a soda fountain. Shapiro's is not. It's a small neighborhood grocery store, and while the deli offers sandwiches made to order — burgers, sausages and barbecue, too — you have to get everything to go.

When I say the sandwiches are made to order, I mean the clerks shave the meat directly onto the bread. In the case of Shapiro's club sandwich, the meat is a tower: ham, roast beef, turkey and peppercorn pastrami, garnished as you like. It's not quite a Dagwood, but it's a large, hearty sandwich to fuel the rest of your workday — or give you the pretext for a nap.

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