The 81-year-old behind the best Italian sandwich in Pasadena
Rosario Mazzeo says he hasn’t missed a single day of work in 70 years. The owner of Roma Market in Pasadena arrives at 4:30 a.m. and works until 8:30 p.m., seven days a week.
“This is my life,” he says on a recent morning, sitting in a chair opposite the entrance. “Not even one day I take off. I like what I’m doing.”
Mazzeo, 81, wears a black polo shirt with the Roma Market logo, jeans, black dress shoes and a blue apron. His dark eyebrows never fall, giving him the look of someone who is always on alert.
The location of Mazzeo’s chair, frayed with age, is strategic. From there he can study the room and scan for anyone who might need assistance. He can watch the entrance, the deli counter to his left, and the wine room to the right. Behind him is the prep room where his staff makes tomato sauce, ravioli (both using Mazzeo’s mother’s recipe) and of course, hundreds of Italian sandwiches. Or, as it’s known more colloquially, “the sandwich.”
The sandwich, as the late restaurant critic Jonathan Gold referred to it, is Mazzeo’s life’s work. Wrapped in cotton candy-colored butcher paper, its contents are simple and never change: crusty bread made by a Sicilian baker, a drizzle of good olive oil, a couple slices each of capicola, mortadella, salami and provolone. It has taken on legendary status over the years; a necessary stop for anyone who claims to know or love Italian sub sandwiches.
He invented his version in 1959, after a wine salesman requested something to eat.
“It was by mistake,” Mazzeo says. The salesman asked for a sandwich at eight in the morning. Mazzeo told the man he didn’t make sandwiches. But the salesman persisted until Mazzeo took a piece of bread, added olive oil, three meats and cheese. The next day, five of the salesman’s coworkers showed up, asking for the sandwich. He started out selling them for 59 cents. Now they cost $5.50.
(He refuses to make substitutions, although he has added a vegetarian option with Provolone, Swiss and marinated artichokes, and now offers a version on ciabatta as well.)
Grinder, hoagie, hero, sub, torpedo. The name differs based on where you’re eating it. In L.A., to most, it’s an Italian sub.
Mazzeo stacks the sandwiches on the deli counter, making around 400 to 600 a day. Over the course of the morning, the mound shrinks and grows as it’s replenished, until it eventually disappears when Mazzeo runs out of bread.
During the pandemic, the store has been busier than ever. Despite his age, Mazzeo says he has never once thought about skipping work.
As customers wander around the store, he sits, watches and waits for inquiries about a new wine shipment or a jar of olive oil.
“You have a good day, OK?” he calls to a man and his son, both clutching sandwiches.
Mazzeo, who started working at his parents’ deli in Sicily when he was 10, can’t recall a family member who wasn’t in the deli business.
He moved to Los Angeles in 1950 at the request of an uncle who needed help running his produce market. The uncle had opened Roma in 1946 in the parking lot where the market now stands, at the corner of Mountain Street and Lake Avenue in Pasadena.
In 1960, Mazzeo expanded the market and added a slew of imported Italian products and the deli counter to more closely resemble his parents’ place back in Sicily.
The market is organized as a series of clusters and boxes: Bags of nuts, boxes of candies, jars of olive oil, a crate of orange soda. Christmas decorations hang from the ceiling year-round, alongside cured meats.
Mazzeo knows where everything is. After a customer asks him for a particular bottle of wine, he gets up from his chair without hesitation, walks slowly to where it’s hiding behind another bottle, and hands it to him.
For years Mazzeo stood behind the deli counter, slicing the meats himself and offering samples. But age and a bad back have forced him to slowly migrate from standing behind the counter to sitting behind the counter, in his current spot in the middle of the shop, in his frayed chair. But when it gets busy, Mazzeo is right back behind the counter.
“They do it OK,” he says of his five employees. “They can’t do like I do. My customers want to see me.”
A woman stands in front of Mazzeo, gently patting melons, trying to find the right one. He chooses one for her, telling her, “This is a good one.”
“I live a simple life,” he says as he sits back down. “I’m here, I’m home, I’m happy.”
918 N. Lake Ave., Pasadena, (626) 797-7748
Get our new Cooking newsletter.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.