November 21, 2009 | Italian

Cheese and Salami in the Bronx

In which I hand out cheese samples; my parents would be proud.

This morning it seemed to take forever to get to the Bronx. Fortunately, I had grammar and vocabulary exercises to keep me company on the subway.

I arrived at Mike’s Deli, located in the back right corner of Arthur Avenue Retail Market, right before 10 a.m., which is when David Greco, one of the owners (the other is his father), had said to show up. David was there and said, maybe with a bit of surprise, “You made it.”

David Greco, Owner of Mike's Deli

David is a big guy, pleasant-looking, with impressive physical and vocal energy. We got right to work. He handed me a round wooden cutting board with a handle, and a paper plate on it, on which he had placed samples of a cheese called incanestrato siciliano. He made me practice the name. He told me that I should say, “Senta la perfuma.” (Basically, smell it.) And also that I should greet people with “Buongiorno” or “Ciao,” along with “Assaggio?” Which means, “Taste?”

I knew I would not be able to remember all of this. That’s not how I roll.

I guess he saw what I was thinking, because he said, “Do you need a cheat sheet?”

I said maybe, and he said, not unkindly, “You seem like someone who would want a cheat sheet.”

When David first handed me the cheese, I have to say, what crossed my mind was, it’s 10:00 in the morning! How many people will want cheese at this time of day? Of course, he was right and I was wrong. Many people would try it, get an orgasmic look on their faces, and then get in line to buy it. Passing out cheese was a remarkable sales strategy.

Fans of Mike's Deli

I initially felt like an idiot trying to speak Italian to people who I was 95 percent sure were Americans with no clue about Italian. But then I realized that they liked it. This market is apparently a major tourist attraction, and over the course of the morning it became clear to me that David is a kind of food celebrity. I noticed video playing of him with Paula Deen, as well as various other strategically placed press clippings and photos. Plus he seemed to know practically everyone that passed by his deli counter.

After I finished distributing cheese samples, next came the salami picante calabrese. This item worked the same way the cheese had: it (1) inspired orgasmic facial expressions and (2) sent people straight to the line to buy some. Soon I needed a refill. And the line to buy food was getting longer and longer.

Some people were piggies. They would take multiple samples at a time and then come back for more. But most were well-behaved.

The third food I was responsible for distributing was panettone, a sweet bread. This went even more quickly than the other stuff, but the samples did not result in obvious sales conversions the way the cheese and salami had. People were very happy to eat the panettone, but it seemed to me it was the cheese and salami that made them pause and actually change their minds about their food futures.

There were some foodie-looking people from Connecticut or New Jersey who loitered for a long time talking to David. One of whom looked like an L.A. director. When he took another sample shortly before leaving, after having declined it previously, I said, “I talked you into it, huh?”

He smiled and replied, “What can I say? Great food, beautiful woman.” Note the sentence structure. Having watched people’s food reactions for some time now, I was not surprised to come in second to a salami.

Food Fantasies at Mike's Deli

During my time there, I did squeeze in a few short Italian conversations, though not as many as I would have liked. One elderly man told me in Italian that his girlfriend of 13 years was getting jealous of his talking to me. He was funny, but I really couldn’t understand him very well. In fact, most of the Italian speakers I talked to today I could not understand all that well, because they were often quite old and tended to mumble, or didn’t say much, or spoke dialect. Or some combination of those things. So my main Italian language experiences for the day were food-related: assaggio, incanestrato siciliano, and salami picante calabrese.

As I was leaving, David observed that I hadn’t been sampling. That was absolutely true; I did not spend more than a year getting back in shape in order to sacrifice it for a language project. This is one language project that will have nothing whatsoever to do with food. David tried to give me some samples for the road, but I declined, so he insisted I at least take a few bread sticks. I hope I didn’t offend him, but I don’t want to get fat studying languages. It would be a very easy thing to do, and has happened to many a language student before me.

I left the Bronx at 1 p.m. When I got home, by coincidence the results from my annual physical were waiting for me. They made me happy. It’s not as though my values were terrible before, but my blood pressure is very low now, and my cholesterol is down, too, to 164. I would like to stay here, and eating salami and cheese are not going to help with that. Imperative, subjunctive, and flashcards, on the other hand, are.

I then opened my knapsack to discover pieces of crushed breadsticks everywhere.

Although I was feeling pretty sleep-deprived, I went to Café Margot with my Italian books and did some grammar. I am now able to do the more advanced books without a problem. I enjoy switching from one to another as the mood strikes me.

I find this all to be an unbelievable amount of fun.

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