Blues City Deli owner Vince Valenza can't recall when he consumed his first sandwich, or what kind of sandwich it was "Probably a loaf of Italian bread and a hunk of cheese" but he got his first drum set when he was three years old. He's been pounding the skins ever since. Around 1989, when he was in his mid-thirties, Valenza and music buddy Pennsylvania Slim (who still plays out around town) began immersing themselves in rockabilly, roots music and early rock & roll. They started with Chuck Berry and made their way to Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and the like. The blues became their singular passion. Taking on a bassist, they played little dives and by the late 1990s were gigging four nights a week at places like the Broadway Oyster Bar, BB's and Mike & Min's.
The entire time, Valenza dreamed of opening a restaurant. He never earned a professional culinary education and to this day isn't quite sure how the desire germinated in him. But around 1985 he approached a friend who had his own Italian place in north county and asked to learn the business, then proceeded to apply himself to it in the same way that he would come to do with the blues. Valenza worked the line, saw to purchasing, managed the front of the house. All that while working steady day jobs elsewhere (with five kids, he and his wife had a lot of bacon to bring home). One of those jobs took him to a convention in New Orleans, where he saw a city whose music and food were inextricable from one another. That was the beginning.
In October 2004 Valenza opened Blues City Deli in the cutest little corner-storefront you've ever seen, in sleepy Benton Park. Though Valenza lives in St. Charles, he wanted a city restaurant to match St. Louis' urban blues heritage. Blues City looks as much like a museum as it does a sandwich shop. The walls are riddled with concert posters, blues album covers and photos of blues artists (including a studio shot of Valenza with Pennsylvania Slim from back in the day). The menu is pretty much all sandwiches: fourteen of them, with a house salad, a chef salad and a soup of the day rounding out the board.
Valenza took many of his ideas from the cities that made the blues famous. His N'awlins-style muffaletta does the Big Easy proud. It's Big, for starters, almost as wide as a Frisbee and as thick as a phone book, served up on a round of sesame seed-topped Italian bread (this and all other breads come courtesy of Fazio's good choice!). Stacked to the rafters with Genoa salami, ham, mortadella, provolone and mozzarella, the muffaletta may be ordered by the whole or the half (another good choice).
Like the music that inspires him, Valenza's standout sandwiches make their mark with a grace note, a nuance, a riff. In the case of the muffaletta, it's Valenza's handmade olive salad. Pimiento-stuffed green olives are chopped up into big chunks, then assaulted with bits of carrots, cauliflower, cocktail onions and pepperoncini. It truly is more like a salad than a spread, and it has the gumption to assert itself amid all the muffaletta's meats and cheeses.
Most of the other sandwiches are labeled po'boys. There's a po'boy stuffed with Memphis-style pulled pork, dripping with wet sauce that reverberates with Tennessee tang. (Or is it twang?) Valenza says many customers request it topped with cole slaw, whose crunch and bite provide textural oomph to the oh-so-tender meat. A Turkey Supreme po'boy consists of roasted turkey, cheese, lettuce, tomato, pickle, onion and mayo plus a layer of crunchy, crackly bacon, the thrill of the sandwich. A crowd favorite is the Benton Park po'boy, a classic deli sub that aims to please with smoked ham, roast beef, turkey and Provel, dressed with lettuce, tomato, pickle, white onion and pepperoncini, topped with the house dressing, which is basically Thousand Island with a kick of red pepper.
From Chicago comes the chili dog. Valenza imports his Vienna beef wieners straight from the Windy City but dubs his dog in honor of the 1904 World's Fair. Smothered in chili, melted cheese and chopped onion and served on a soft poppyseed bun, it's a fair facsimile of a Chitown chili dog. If anything it's a bit too much of a puppy. It could stand to bare its teeth a bit more, like the Chicago-style hot Italian beef sandwich does: a sumptuous serving of roasted top round so drenched in a spiced-up jus that it can bleed through two layers of wax paper, rocketed into orbit by a layer of blazing-hot giardiniera peppers (on request, natch).
Valenza acknowledges his Italian heritage with a meatball sub and a salsiccia sub, both baked hot with marinara and melted cheese. Oh, the bliss of true Italian sausage, with its onion-studded sweetness and its pop-in-your-mouth casing. Would that New Orleans native and Italian icon Louis Prima were still alive he'd go zooma-zooma for this sandwich.
Like a drummer who lays down a steady beat for his band, Valenza nearly always mans the counter at his deli. He's a great counter man, never jotting down an order without offering some tweaks: Cole slaw on the pulled pork? Extra pepperoncini on the Benton Park or none at all? A swap-out of provolone or mozzarella instead of Provel? He's also more than happy to talk up the pictures on the walls or the bottled sodas in the cold case (boutique brands like Berghoff root beer and Green River lemon-lime, plus Coke and Dr Pepper).
Though Valenza doesn't do much advertising, he gets great word of mouth. Lunch business is brisk, the regulars drawn from the ranks of St. Louis cops and firefighters, workers at nearby Anheuser-Busch and downtown nine-to-fivers. Dinner has been nonexistent over the winter (Blues City Deli abbreviates its hours during the cold months) but will stage a comeback in April, when Valenza will begin staying open till 7 p.m. on weeknights.
Go see him. This guy might love the blues, but ain't nothing blue about his cheerful little sandwich shop. Blues City Deli Benton Park po'boy$5.95