My family has always had a theory that the uglier and more out of the way a restaurant, the better the food. When I was a kid, my dad was under the impression that there was nothing worth eating in our suburban Chicago town, so we routinely found ourselves at 65 Restaurant in Chinatown, which had a giant red and gold Buddha in the entrance and a wonton soup to which I compare all others.
I felt a little out of the loop when other kids would talk about eating deep-dish pizza from our local Giordano’s chain, but we had Buffo’s; a sleazier, wood-paneled joint 45 minutes from home with decidedly better pizza. While it used to annoy me, I’ve come to embrace the theory wholeheartedly as I’ve gotten older. It’s no secret that restaurants that look like they’ve stood the test of time tend to serve great food, or maybe food just tastes better when you have to work a little for it.
Either way, Salumeria Biellese is one of those places. If it weren’t for the sun-faded press clippings and awards plastered all over one of the font windows, you could walk by every day and not realize that it offered anything to distinguish it from the hundreds of other generic corner delis in the city. It resides on a stretch of 8th Avenue below Penn Station with little to lure in crowds besides superior encased meats. While locavorism and slow food have become increasingly popular in recent years, Salumeria Biellese has been making its own cured meats and sausages since 1925. They expanded operations to New Jersey a few years ago, but local family farms continue to supply all of their meat (mainly Berkshire hogs), and the salumi are based on traditional Piedmontese recipes.
Ask one of the men working behind the glass cases of soppressatta and capicolla if they also make their own fresh mozzarella, and he is likely to stare at you blankly for a few seconds and say simply, “Yes, everything.” What he’s actually thinking is, “How else would we do it, you idiot?”
All you need to do to understand why the décor isn’t a priority here is order a sandwich — and don’t get too fancy. Stick with mozzarella, olive oil, and one of the salumi on crusty Italian bread. That’s it. This sandwich is one of those examples of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts, though each part is actually pretty incredible on its own. Salumeria Biellese makes a damn good prosciutto with crunchy little salt granules lacing the edges, to which their delicate, fluffy mozzarella is a perfect foil. Sitting in there eating this sandwich, the room transforms into a thing of beauty. Of course, you could also do what one woman did when I was there a few weeks ago. Clearly on a mission from the faraway land of suburbia, she double parked her Lexus SUV and ran into Salumeria Biellese for a chicken parm with spaghetti to go. After cutting it up into pieces, she returned to her car to enjoy it alone before trekking back home. My dad would be proud. -KATE DULIN