After 90 Years, Eastside Deli Still Serves Massive Meaty Sandwiches And A Side Of Italian American History
It's easy to miss Eastside Market Italian Deli, a big beige block of a building you've probably driven past a thousand times while navigating Dodger Stadium. Even with a giant sign on the corner of Alpine Street and Figueroa Terrace, it somehow blends into the streets of Victor Heights.
Bordered by Elysian Park, Echo Park, Chinatown and Angelino Heights, the area is still sometimes referred to as the "Forgotten Edge," a name bestowed by a neighborhood watch group because the LAPD couldn't decide whether it was a part of the Central or Northeast division. The Bermuda Triangle effect makes the deli's 90 years of survival that much more impressive.
During its nine decades, Eastside Deli has endured it all: the Depression, changing demographics, the ebb and flow of development, Dodgers wins, Dodgers losses, recessions, politics and evolving palates.
Through it all, it remains one of the last bastions of what was once Los Angeles's Little Italy, a community of Italian immigrants who settled in what is now Victor Heights, Lincoln Heights, Elysian Park and Chinatown. Some remnants of that era remain — the San Antonio Winery, St. Peter's Italian Catholic Church and the recently restored Italian Hall, now home to the Italian American Museum of Los Angeles — but the deli is the only food-focused holdout.
Dominic Pontrelli originally opened an Italian market on the other side of the Los Angeles River but moved it to its current location, on the corner of Alpine Street and Figueroa Terrace, in 1929. At that time, it was one of several markets where locals shopped for their meats, cheeses, vegetables and pasta. As the community grew in the 1930s and '40s, Pontrelli's son-in-law opened a sausage company and butcher shop inside the market. That wholesale and retail partnership helped keep Eastside Deli during the Depression.
In the early '50s, a young Johnny Angiuli came to America from Bari, Italy. Thanks to family connections, he got a job sweeping floors at the shop. He eventually learned butchery and his brother Frank was hired as a delivery driver. After the wholesale sausage business moved on in the early '70s, the Angiuli brothers took over the market. They continued selling dry goods but decided to become more of a deli utilizing the cold cuts and cheeses they had at their disposal.
"Those were tough times in the '70s," says Johnny's son Anthony Angiuli, who today co-owns the Eastside Deli with his brothers, Rocky and Vito. "The market started to die out, people weren't shopping there as much. Grocery stores were getting big and the area was getting a little rough. But they stayed open seven days a week, worked from 6 in the morning until 7 at night. They stuck it out. They started making changes, keeping a market and butcher but selling sandwiches."
When Johnny added hot sandwiches to the menu, things like sausage, meatballs, roast beef and pastrami dipped in homemade tomato sauce, business took off.
The Angiulis expanded their customer base from neighborhood locals to construction workers, City Hall attorneys, cops, politicians ("Mike Hernandez, Tom La Bonge, they all supported my dad," Anthony recalls) and anyone lucky enough to stumble on the joint.
"There was Philippes and Cole's and The Hat, and they were all doing roast beef or pastrami but dad, he put his twist on it," says Vito Angiuli. "He steamed the pastrami first then dunked it in fresh tomato sauce. He used his background to make it his own."
As with any great sandwich, it's all about the bread.
The elder Angiuli originally sourced rolls from Foix, a now defunct Northeast L.A. bakery that made a soft but sturdy roll. (Today, the Angiulis use another long-standing bakery, Frisco's. Anthony says they make rolls exactly like the ones they used to get from Foix.) The bread had to be strong enough to hold up to meat bombs like the D.A. Special, a combo of sausages, meatballs, roast beef and pastrami created for the bodyguard of then-district attorney Gil Garcetti (L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti's father). It's still one of the most popular sandwiches.
The younger generation has made a few changes over the years. In the late '90s, they took out the market and added more seating. Being so close to Dodger Stadium, they've leaned into their baseball fandom. The menu, however, hasn't changed much. It still features old-school lasagna and spaghetti, antipasti salads and cannoli as well as turkey subs and tuna salad, for smaller appetites. Vito says they're looking into more vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free options.
The other thing that hasn't changed is the tomato sauce, a family recipe that goes back a few generations. Eastside Deli goes through almost 25 gallons a day.
"It's the traditional sauce that every Italian grandma made in her house," says Vito. "It starts with onions and garlic, then the meat, then the basil."
The sauce is a good reminder that the two elder Angiulis didn't run the the business alone. Their wives were always around the market, helping day after day while also raising children. Johnny's mother, who Anthony remembers as a strong force, was always there too.
"My grandma, she was one of the toughest ladies I've ever seen in my life," Anthony says. "Can you imagine working with your spouse all day? There was lots of arguing but they all got along. There was lots of love. Growing up there, me and my cousins, we had good times."
"I think it was a little rough for mom and dad," recalls Vito. "He can be a pain. Stubborn. A perfectionist."
"I call it hard headed, testa dura," Anthony chimes in. "It's his way or no way."
Stubborn or not, Johnny at age 76 is still the heart and soul of the business. He retired a few years ago but he hasn't entirely walked away.
"He's comfortable being out of the business but he doesn't miss a wink. He's there every Saturday to hang out with his friends. He brags about how well his sons are doing, even if he never tells his sons that. Customers love to see him. He's a celebrity around here," Anthony says.
Anthony, the oldest, joined his father in the family business in the late '90s, after his uncle died. Soon Rocky and Vito joined too. The three share responsibilities, each overseeing different facets of the business. You're likely to find at least one of them at the deli, often behind the counter or in the kitchen, any day of the week.
Family is what makes Eastside Deli tick and on Saturday, October 19, they'll celebrate 90 years of business with a huge block party. Alpine Street and Figueroa Terrace will be closed to traffic, 40 classic cars will be on display and LAFD fire trucks will be on hand for the kids to explore. There'll be beer, wine, live music, DJs and, of course, food. The deli will serve a $3 sandwich special throughout the afternoon as a way to thank locals and patrons who have helped the business survive 90 years.
"We haven't lost the people who've been coming for years," says Vito. "If anything, they're introducing their kids and grandkids. We want to celebrate that."