Rumor has it that the founder of Bay Cities Italian Deli and Bakery in Santa Monica was a retired Chicago policeman on the run from the mafia.
Antonio DiTommaso was told it was in his “best interest to move out West,” according to deli lore, said Hector Padilla, general manager at Bay Cities.
To escape any kind of retribution, DiTommaso picked up his life and moved to California, leaving police work behind for customer service. In 1925, he transformed a storefront on Lincoln Boulevard into a deli where Angelenos could get their Italian sandwich fix.
Padilla said the shop has gone through five different owners since DiTommaso.
Today, 90 years later, in a location next door to the original one, the sandwich counter is as busy as ever, and the small storefront on Lincoln Boulevard has grown into a mecca for gourmet cheeses, hundreds of olive oils, balsamic vinegars and every conceivable topping for a hearty Italian sandwich. Although the deli and its clientele have significantly expanded since it opened at the beginning of the 20th century, the deli has maintained a friendly, bustling neighborhood atmosphere.
And Padilla takes great care to make his customers feel at home. Whether you’re a new customer or a regular, he’ll pat your shoulder and point you toward something in the shop he thinks you’ll like.
“This is like my living room, and all these people are just coming in to visit,” Padilla said.
Indeed, it is like Padilla’s home away from home. He and several of his family members – his uncle, aunt and their four children – work at the deli with him.
He even makes Los Angeles celebrities feel like part of the family. He said he’s seen dozens of them come and go throughout his nine years at the deli, and a few are close friends.
Dustin Hoffman, who told Padilla he was normally a tequila man, went through a change of heart at Bay Cities. At Padilla’s suggestion, he tried the shop’s Glenmorangie Nectar D’Or single-malt Scotch, and now it’s his regular purchase. Hilary Swank, Ramon Martinez and Joe Montana are some of the many famous, familiar faces at the deli.
Padilla said although he loves helping and joking with celebrities at the deli, his favorite customers are pregnant women.
When he sees a pregnant woman come into the shop wide-eyed and starving, he pulls her aside and gets her order.
“Now I see some of their 3- and 4-year-old kids come in, and I’m like, ‘I remember you when you were in your mommy’s tummy!’ And they’re like, ‘What?,’” he said, laughing.
Bay Cities has more to offer than just your standard small-market fare. The shop offers specialty housewares – like crepe spreaders and ravioli stamps – that are hard to find elsewhere. The line for the deli counter – where you can find everything from meatballs to custom sandwiches – usually extends out the door.
I tried the establishment’s signature sandwich – “The Godmother” – and two other specialty sandwiches, called "The Spaniard" and "The Little Don Lorenzo."
The Godmother, Bay Cities’ claim to fame since the 1950s, is definitely not for the faint of stomach. Plan on skipping breakfast before and dinner after if you wish to try it out, because that’s how long you will be full.
It’s a colossal mound of four kinds of meat – Genoa salami, mortadella coppacola, ham and prosciutto – stacked underneath provolone, mustard, mayo, pickles, stringy onions, spicy pepperoncini, lettuce and tomato.
The first bite into the deli’s freshly baked bread is a religious experience. It has just the right amount of crunch on the crust to ward off sogginess from the sloppy sandwich fillings, but not so much to suggest staleness. Its pillow-like, doughy center pairs beautifully with the spiciness of the mustard and peppers, turning down the heat when needed.
The deli bakery also sells loaves of bread inside the shop. The in-house baked bread was the brainchild of Padilla’s uncle. His uncle, the master baker of the family, started baking bread at Bay Cities around a decade ago so that the deli did not have to order it from an outside vendor.
The meat is what makes the sandwich famous. Four kinds of high-quality, rich and savory flavors combine to make a smooth, if messy, sandwich-eating experience. The peppers and mustard add spice and zing that keeps your lips tingling, but not so much spice as to overpower the meat and cheese flavors.
The Godmother, like any other mother, is lovable, but a little high maintenance. The fillings can be tricky, too: After my attempt to balance all the flavors in one bite, all of the meat, cheese and vegetables slid out of the sandwich in one fell swoop. Overall, though, it’s utterly satisfying.
Tip: Split a large The Godmother with a friend, and pair the sandwich with chips of your choice before washing it down with Italian soda.
After studying abroad in Salamanca, Spain, this past summer, Spanish sandwiches – called bocadillos – will always have a place in my heart. They are usually served on baguette-like bread with olive oil and thinly sliced jamón (ham) or some other kind of meat.
The Spaniard at Bay Cities is definitely a fancier take on the traditional bocadillos. It’s stuffed with Pamplona chorizo – from the city that hosts the running of the bulls festival in July – hot copa seca, honey ham, serrano, Gruyère cheese, plump roasted tomatoes, olive oil and a hint of rosemary. Parsley flakes dot the crust of the bread, which is a scrumptious loaf of mini baguette.
Compared to The Godmother, The Spaniard is much easier to eat because it has less sauce and fewer toppings. Using olive oil instead of mustard and mayonnaise lets the flavors of the Gruyère, chorizo and serrano really shine. The nutty quality of the cheese and the strong, savory meat left my mouth watering. If you’re in the mood for a simpler sandwich than The Godmother and you want to satisfy all of your Spanish meat cravings, go for The Spaniard.
The Little Don Lorenzo
The Little Don Lorenzo is every bit as cute as its name. Served on a small, twisted mini baguette with olive oil and spicy black pepper seasoning, the tasty sandwich is made of thinly sliced, lace-like Parma prosciutto, water mozzarella, chopped basil and roasted tomato. It’s quintessentially Italian.
The mozzarella is a standout in this sandwich. The rich, smooth and creamy cheese complements the drier, more robust smoky flavor of the prosciutto. The basil adds a refreshing seasoning to the juicy roasted tomato.
The Little Don Lorenzo was more comparable to the simplicity of The Spaniard than the intensity of The Godmother. But the sandwich was comfort food – familiar flavors, a delectable combination of meat and cheese and just the right size for a little lunch.
Padilla said he still does not know all aspects of Bay Cities’ past. Parts of its long history are secret – and parts of its menu are as well.
The four "off-the-menu" items include "The Godfather," a double-stacked version of The Godmother, "The Don Lorenzo," an expansion of The Little Don Lorenzo served on the deli’s regular bread with caprese and Parma prosciutto, "The Lt.," a sandwich with turkey and salami, and "The Canine Nero," which includes tri tip, water mozzarella and balsamic vinegar and was named after a local police officer’s dog who died about a year after the officer became a regular at the deli.
Now when the officer and his pals come into the shop, they know to ask for The Canine Nero. And after nearly a decade of managing the store, Padilla loves that customers come to find sandwiches with personalities.
“I’ve stayed because of the food and the people,” he said.