A sandwich, seemingly the simplest of dishes, can be surprisingly hard to perfect. Much like a rocket that fails upon liftoff, many sandwiches flare out immediately due to catastrophic bread failure. Look, we’re all food snobs here, and we can all agree that artisanal bread is the staff of life. I love a good, crusty loaf of pain au levain as much as any foodie, but sometimes that first bite of holy Acme Bread Company bread can send the sandwich fillings squishing out on either side and deliver a nasty scratch to the top of your mouth.
Which is why a soft roll can sometimes be the answer. Just look at the Corti Brothers deli counter: surrounded by baskets of Acme bread brought in from Berkeley, but eschewing these crusty baguettes when it comes to its sandwiches. I’m not talking an insipid, sweet, characterless piece of bread, but a compact roll with a satisfying chew. Zia’s Delicatessen has such a roll.
So, now we have the perfect, old-fashioned sandwich roll. What do we put on it? Zia’s isn’t really about trying every sandwich: It’s about finding your sandwich. Even though Zia’s has a large selection of salumi from San Francisco’s esteemed P.G. Molinari and Sons, my favorite is the eponymous offering, a tidy sandwich with a wedge of zucchini frittata, a slice of provolone, romaine lettuce and grainy tomato (Zia’s only filling weak spot, but somehow, you won’t mind). The dressing is a simple dash of vinegar and oil to add some tang. Order it hot, so that the provolone melts into the bread.
A friend I run into says his sandwich is the hot meatball sub—he’s never tried anything else. The small-grained, tender meatballs are bathed in a thin, oregano-flecked tomato sauce that soaks into the bread. The result is a lighter take on the usual thick marinara.
A tuna sandwich is sturdy, if not exciting. It is just mayonnaisey enough, with tiny, diced bits of celery. A rosemary panino cotto with mozzarella could benefit from a more flavorful cheese—perhaps Gruyere, to complement the hamlike flavor of the cotto. For a meatier option, try the Milano: mortadella, salami, Muenster; all three flavors in balance. The turkey Viareggio has a thin spread of pesto mayo, and the smoked mozzarella accents rather than overpowers. A house-roasted pork loin is bland enough to masquerade as subpar sliced turkey, but peppery turkey pastrami convincingly mimics the real thing, which, I guess, is a selling point for turkeytarians.
The sandwich prices (they range from about 6 to 8 bucks) are undoubtedly something this family-owned business learned from operating its first shop located in Davis (open since 1995): College students will not pay 10 dollars for a sandwich, no matter how many organic farms are involved. The Davis Zia’s is so popular and so small—only six tables, some of them outside—that eating there at peak times can be stressful, which is why it’s lucky that the Sacramento location has abundant seating, including a patio. The staff, most of whom come from the Davis shop, have been honed to efficiency, and no wait will be long, which is important for their many customers on lunch break.
Since Zia’s opened in December, adjacent to the Magpie Cafe outpost Yellowbill Cafe Bakery, these two spots have considerably livened up this previously moribund part of Midtown.
Together they represent both the new guard and the old fashioned, and there’s no need to pit them against each other. There’s room enough for both.