Small Wonders: The meaning of life, Italian-style

The day was perfect. A late-July afternoon in mid-May. Happy children playing happily with friends on the block, defining what Saturdays are all about. The sun descending behind shade trees, but promising to keep daylight around a few more hours.

So I sent out the call to the neighbors:


Texted it, actually. Feel free to guess what it means. On our block it’s the Batman light in the night sky — a call to action.

Minutes later I'm at Monte Carlo Deli, the closest Burbank has to Mario's Deli in Glendale. Please don't ask me to choose between the Italian deli of my hometown versus the one in my adopted town. It would only lead to broken hearts. Mostly mine.

You know a store is good when you have to take a number from the old-school ticket dispenser and wait your turn. Fish King has one too. 'Nuf said — 20 grown-ups clutching shards of numbered paper like winning lottery tickets, afraid to look away from the lighted number above our heads, but mesmerized by the delicacies in the case before us. Buzz!

“No. 84?”

I'm in.

“I'll have a quarter pound of imported prosciutto to start,” I tell the sommelier of small bites.

She pulls from the case a 10-pound cured ham hock that's been pampered by chaste monks under vows of silence in Parma, Italy, for the last 18 months, and begins slicing.

“I want to be able to see through each slice,” I warn her. She nods and adjusts.

I can see I’m making her nervous, so I wander off to peruse other delights. There's a tray of marinated black olives with herbs and cubes of cheese.

“What kind of cheese is in that?” I ask an attendant of antipasti.

“Feta,” he says as he lovingly caresses the olives with a long spoon. “It's very good.”

His eyes close a little, as if holding back a dream he wants so badly to fall into.

“I'll take a half pint of that, my friend.”

He approves, knowing these morsels will be rightly appreciated.

A nice, dry salametti, some vibrant red roasted bell peppers in olive oil and a quarter pint of the spicy, marinated artichoke hearts. Yes, that's it. But don't forget the cheese!

“How's the Los Cameros?” I ask. My mistress pulls the half-wheel, milky white flesh and ashen, dusty, intense rind, from the case as another clerk watches over.

If Monte Carlo had a cheesemonger, it'd be this guy.

“That's new,” he says.

And like the olive curator, I sense him disappear, transcendentally mediating to a 200-year-old farmhouse in La Rioja, España. They hand me a sample taste.

“It's a blend of goat, cow and sheep's milk, bathed in olive oil,” he tells me.

Creamy and delicate up front, then the bite. Oh, the bite of a fine, gourmet cheese, tingling your tongue, waking nerve endings you didn't know you had. Then the smooth fruit-nut flavors on the backend. This isn't “cheese,” this is pasteurized heaven.

“I'll take a quarter…no, a half-pound, please.”

But I'll need another cheese to round it out, something hearty, arid and wise with age. Perhaps the dry Monterey — thick, brown skin, egg-yolk flesh. I'm looking for cheese speckled with the tiny crystals that only come with time and patient care, and this is the one.

While they carve me a slice — thankfully, a slightly larger slice than I asked for — I turn back to the racks of jarred, bottled and canned accompaniments one finds only at import delis. There's tapenades and hearts of palm, biscotti and crostini, pomodoro and caponata, olive oils and vinegars you'll find nowhere else.

But I know what I need: Fig spread. Nature, in her infinite wisdom, paired red meat and mesquite fire, bacon with anything, and Simon with Garfunkel. But one of her most divine pairings was sweet with savory. That fine, aged, dry, crystallized Monterey cheese will ascend to new epicurean heights when kissed with the jammy sweetness of a fig spread. If you know what I'm talking about, you know. If you don't, you need to trust me on this.

And last, but certainly not least, the great unifier, the one thing that will bring this all together: vino.

Sangiovese? A trusty Chianti? Or, dare I, the Barolo?

Yes. Yes. And yes.

At the register, there's no scanner, and everything goes in a brown paper bag, as it should.

“Mille grazie!”

Everyone's a little Italian at the deli. Thanks, Monte Carlo.

This is the first in a two-part series. Next week: The meaning of DOTL

PATRICK CANEDAY enjoys life. Contact him at Friend him on Facebook. Read more at

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