I’m going to make a bold claim. I know where to find the best Italian sub in Greater Boston: oily, meaty, saturated with hots, just gigantic. At least two meals. Maybe three.
It’s not at Monica’s in the North End, or Bob’s in Medford, or New Deal in Revere. It’s in Chelmsford.
Locals, or maybe just my mother, call it the Chelmsford Deli.
It’s been around for 44 years, in a plaza straight out of 1970-nothing suburbia. Neon orange signage on the windows: Luncheon Specials. Cold Cuts. Framed articles from “The Lowell Sun” on the walls (that’s the paper of record in these parts). Moxie ads starring Ted Williams. Plaques from bygone Little League games. You can picture the generations of flushed, cleat-wearing 1980s kids stomping in for their sandwich fix, kids who might be here now, sitting right beside you at the Formica tables: police officers, firefighters, utility workers, maintenance guys. There are a lot of reflective vests in this room. Tony Taddeo is at the door as usual, tapping at the register like Cousin Eustace in “It’s A Wonderful Life”; Lisa Taddeo and Chris Dupont are fixing subs behind the counter.
“I’m arite. How-wah-ya, my friend?”
This is almost all one word, a dialect peculiar to the Merrimack Valley, a gruff inflection as familiar to me as air. My family is from Lowell, and my parents grew up there.
And this is why I love this place — officially called the Centre Deli — so much. It was my treat before clothes shopping at Marshalls across the street with my grandparents throughout the 1980s and 1990s. My grandfather would make small talk with the mannequins: “How are you? Are those new earrings?” to entertain me while my grandmother prowled the racks, plastic hangers clanging together until she found her prize. An Italian sub made the inevitable “is this too tight in the crotch?” question from Nana easier to take.
And I’ve always gotten the Italian: Capicola. Mortadella. Genoa. Provolone. Cold, hard, thickly sliced. Onions. Juicy, translucent rings of tomatoes. Diced little cubes of tangy pickles, shredded lettuce soaked in oil and a dusting of oregano, hot pepper relish — none of that pepper ring nonsense — and mayo.
Yes, glorious mayo. And not mayo swirled artfully atop the sandwich, either. No, this mayo is slapped onto each side of the roll like white paint, binding the meats to either side. Some may argue that mayonnaise has no place on an Italian sub. But that’s how my mother always got it and that’s how I get it, too. Here, they don’t look askance if you request this heavenly glue. They smile knowingly and do as you ask. “The works,” they say. Understood.
Then, a bag of Salsitas from the rack near the register. Lest you think I’m being “piggy,” as my Nana might suggest, I use the chips as utensils. This sub will disintegrate upon first bite, lettuce and pickles dribbling onto the paper plate, so I fashion nachos out of the chips, scooping up every last bit of oily lettuce, a trick I learned when I was 11 or so, anxiously awaiting my off-price treasures. Did I have something waiting on layaway? Would I go to the Chelmsford Gift Shop afterward to buy a new headband? This sandwich is delicious, but it also holds promise, the feast before the bounty. One squirt of creamy mayonnaise out the sides, and it’s 1992 — a bite of Pavlovian nostalgia.
My grandmother went to D’Youville Manor in Lowell for Alzheimer’s in 2005, so my grandfather was alone in his triple-decker in South Lowell and cooking for himself after that. I’d sometimes speed up Route 3 from Arlington toward the Lowell Connector and pick him up for lunch here. We wouldn’t be going to Marshalls anymore, but it still felt like I was younger, cared for, with him sitting across from me with his own pastrami sandwich and ginger ale from the cooler in the back.
Then he got lung cancer — a non-smoker who lived behind the Prince Spaghetti Factory in South Lowell for seven decades. Who knows what caused it. Bad luck? World War II? Toxins sputtering into the air behind Moore Street? But if he polished off his sub, I knew he was still healthy enough, even if he coughed.
The Centre Deli, with the Italian subs smeared, yes, with mayo. Always my reward at the end of this field trip.
My grandparents died two weeks apart in 2008. I don’t drive up this way much since then, but sometimes I can’t help it. I just need to see. Scout things out. It all looks different in their neighborhood, a few blocks up from the Spaghettiville bridge. Cloudier, dirtier, decayed. The hedges my grandfather meticulously trimmed are overgrown. “No trespassing” signs dangle menacingly from chain-link fences. Their backyard, always dutifully mowed with a basketball hoop, a clothes line, and a stone-mounted Virgin Mary statue, is a weedy patch with a dirty mattress on the walkway. I think their church might be condos.
A few months ago, I idled in front of their house until I saw someone peer around the living room blinds — the same living room where I once sang show tunes from “Annie Get Your Gun” to my elderly relatives at Thanksgiving (decked out in Marshalls finery, no doubt). I peeled off and headed down Gorham Street and over Riverneck Road toward Route 110, taking the long way toward the Centre Deli.
And, OK, not everything has changed. Child’s World is gone, and so is the movie theater, and so is Marshalls. But there was Feeney the Florist and Mrs. Nelson’s Candy House. And the Hong and Kong, a garish MSG parlor where my other grandmother once got a hot pepper stuck in her dentures, was still right where it should be.
And of course the Centre Deli, with the orange signs and the Italian subs smeared, yes, with mayo. Always my reward at the end of this field trip.
“Where’s the guy who used to always come in with you? Haven’t seen him around lately,” Lisa Taddeo asked me on one of those visits as I was getting up to go. She was just being friendly. Chatting to the locals. As it’s always been.
“I’m taking the rest of my sub home to him,” I said with a smile, rolling up my paper plate, streaked with oil, and stuffing it into a brown bag.
I didn’t have the heart to say he was gone.
Centre Deli, 11 Summer St., Chelmsford, 978-256-3621.Kara Baskin can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.