Know Your Deli Man

One of the best ways I know to banish the end-of-winter blues, is to walk into an Italian delicatessen. The minute you step inside, your nose tells you exactly where you are. The mingled pungencies of cured meats and well-aged cheeses set the nostrils tingling. There’s no other smell quite like it.

Waiting in line, you’re ogling cheeky rounds of salamis lined up beside prosciutto, capicola, asiago, parmigiano, side by side with rows of plump rosy-red and wine-dark sausages, tubs overflowing with snowy feta, mounds of gleaming green and black olives. The very words – sopressatta, mortadella, locatelli– limber up the tongue and start the mouth watering. Before you know it, you’re ordering too much of everything. It’s all so irresistible and you’re so deprived, having suffered months on end of sensory deprivation, living as you do in the tohu abohu, (abomination of desolation) otherwise known as winter in the Upper Midwest. 

How well I remember my four-year-old’s first visit to a famous Italian deli. We were in Philadelphia for a family wedding. Before we even got inside the store, Dominick had his first shock, peering on tiptoe into a barrel bigger than he was to discover he was nose to nose with a tribe of swarming snails. Then came his astonishment, once inside, at the forest of seven foot provolones, thick as telephone poles, dangling from the ceiling.

“Dominick!” How ever did that enormous man behind the counter know his name? Standing astride the platform swathed in a white apron, brandishing a big knife, he looked as fierce as Stromboli. “Dominick!” The voice boomed again. Slowly, mustering his courage, he crossed on tentative steps toward the counter, reached out and took from the palm of the Deli Man his very own freshly cut slice of provolone.

Steve Fraboni. Photo by Alan D. Attie.

Steve Fraboni, who ran Fraboni’s Italian Specialties and Delicatessen at 822 Regent Street, the shop his parents opened some forty-seven years ago, knows all about those snails: “Babalucci,” we called them. If you didn’t remember to put the lid on the barrel at night, they’d be all over the shop in the morning.”

Steve understands every time a Deli Man offers a slice of salami, a morsel of cheese, a tiny spoonful of olive oil or real balsamic vinegar, he’s creating a bond. That customer is likely to come back again and again, bring his little boy with him, and so on across the generations. It’s the personal touch that greases the machinery of a well-oiled Italian deli and keeps ‘em comin’ back. That’s the secret. It’s what we’re all missing. It’s what we long for in this digital age of glass screens and robo calls. Simple human to human connection. Enforced civility.

When you know your Deli Man and you run out of arborio rice at 8:00 o’clock at night, you’re right in the middle of making a mushroom risotto, you call him up. If you’re lucky, he’ll still be in the shop and tell you to come on down, but hurry up. When you know your Deli Man, and you need a whole prosciutto for your son’s graduation from college, he’ll special order it from Iowa where the folks know what they’re doing and it won’t cost you an arm and a leg. When you know your Deli Man, he’ll let you buy up all his specialty sausages– the ones with parsley, cheese, and wine he only makes for Christmas and Easter–so Dominick can wake up on Christmas morning and find them dangling from the Christmas tree.

Ever since I arrived in Madison in 1983, I’ve been a devoted Fraboni’s customer. Over the years, we’ve probably consumed hundreds of his sausages. Imagine my dismay when one Sunday night last fall he called me from the store to say, “Jean, I just closed down the shop. I didn’t want you to come down…”his voice trailed off. It took me a moment to absorb the shock. I yelled. He cried. I cried. My sons cried, too, when they found out. “Wow, that’s terrible.” The emails went flying back and forth.

“Dom, it looks like we will have to rely on you to fly in with sausages from now on.”

“Maybe we can get his recipe and start grinding our own?”

A week went by, then this from Giancarlo: “Still surprised about Fraboni’s – there are literally no places to get any decent sausages up here (in Minneapolis) and even in Florence they lack that certain je ne sais quoi…:

Every time I pass the store on Regent Street, I feel a pang. I try not to look at the windows shrouded in brown paper, try not to read the sign, Moved to Monona…  “If I couldn’t do it a hundred percent, I didn’t want to do it at all.”

We all know why Fraboni’s closed. Cardboard from Amazon keeps piling up; big box stores proliferate; the mom and pops keep shutting down.

Steve is somewhere in Mexico. Nobody knows for how long. Meanwhile, his brother Gary runs the bigger, newer store in Monona, and thank God for that. But it’s not the same. There will be no mustachioed Stormboli standing in a big white apron behind the counter ready to initiate a four-year-old boy into what it means to be a human being.