Meet the Women Who Are Modernizing the Italian Deli
Masculine spaces and products are getting a welcome rebrand.
I love a classic Italian sandwich—spicy soppressata, fresh mozz over provolone, pickled pepperoncini, all on semolina, of course. But I don’t always enjoy picking one up. For me, traditional Italian delis have always operated as decidedly masculine spaces. More often than not, it’s men who are making the sandwiches, and it’s men who are ordering them. The delis, and occasionally the sandwiches themselves, are named after Vitos, Carmines, Giovannis, and—lest we forget—their sons and brothers.
There’s a certain code of conduct that goes on, perhaps unknowingly, at the Italian deli. Do you grab a ticket at the number dispenser, or order straightaway at the counter? It’s cramped. There’s a lot of shouting. If you’re lucky, there will be a menu, but it’s likely that the best order is an unofficial special, passed down from one guy to the next. Then there’s the banter. Freshly sliced samples of lunch meat are offered in between greetings to regulars, manly jibes, and talks of last night’s game.
This is not to say that I’ve been treated badly at Italian delis. They’ve got a certain old-world charm, and I’m even a little jealous of the male camaraderie. But I began to think about what it means to own an Italian deli as a woman, and how that might shift the sense of what we have come to know as a traditional deli environment.
But the thing is, there are not many female Italian deli owners, though there are a few women who are innovating the field. Cara Nicoletti, owner of Seemore Meats & Veggies, is a fourth-generation butcher and the first woman in her family to take up the trade.
“Butcher shops and delis can be really intimidating places,” she says. “I’ve always loved being able to serve my female customers, who were probably a little hesitant to come up to the meat counter. I wanted to make it a safer place for them to come to and ask questions.”
In an effort to encourage her customers to eat less meat, Nicoletti reimagined the sausage, replacing fillers with fresh vegetables. Launching her brand in February 2020, she sought to double her yield of good-quality meat and bring it to a demographic of people who couldn’t afford to care where their food was coming from.
“I really wanted to democratize the humane meat movement, get it to more people on a mass scale in a way that felt non-judgemental, and at a price point that was accessible,” she says. Featuring ingredients like spicy green chiles, kale, and beets, Seemore sausages take on the form of comforting dishes like loaded baked potatoes and chicken soup.
Nicoletti learned everything there is to know about meat from her grandfather, Seymour Salet, who worked at the family’s Boston butcher shop, Salet’s, for 60 years. A self-described “pizza bagel,” Nicoletti is half Jewish, half Italian. Though the butcher side of the family is Jewish, they set up shop in Boston’s predominantly Italian North End.
While Nicoletti has experienced great similarities between her Jewish and Italian sides, she says the deli cultures are markedly different. “If I were going to gender both delis, I would say that the Italian deli is masculine and the Jewish deli is feminine,” she explains. “The Jewish deli is like a grandma—it's a bubbe—which is interesting, because you go into Russ & Daughters, and it’s mostly men slicing the Nova, but there's still this feeling that it’s your grandmother feeding you.”
The idea of the matriarch was also a source of inspiration for Sarah Schafer and Anna Caporael, who opened Cooperativa, a modern Italian market in Portland, Oregon. The duo knew early on that they wanted to replicate the experience of walking into the Mercato Centrale in Florence, rather than an Italian-American deli.
“We really fell in love with Italy and what those markets bring—the purity of the food and where you gain your knowledge from,” Caporael adds. “Oftentimes, you’re training with a nonna. Everyone still respects what their mom brings to the table.”
Their one-stop shop, which opened for take-out in 2020, boasts a cafe, sandwich shop, pastaria, pizzeria, gelateria, and bar. The sprawling food hall consists of 25-foot ceilings and 15 food windows, some of which stay open. “We wanted, as you’re walking by, to see little vignettes, or snapshots of people's day, and feel invited in by those visuals,” Caporael says. “We wanted it to feel like there was a lot of flow and natural movements throughout the space—like nothing would be halting.”
Schafer and Caporael both have backgrounds in fine dining, as owners of Portland’s now-shuttered Irving Street Kitchen. Schafer, whose culinary experience hails from the East Coast, was the youngest and first female sous chef at Gramercy Tavern in New York.
She recalls her experiences visiting Italian delis as a kid, in which she always felt a sense of exclusion. “I remember one deli that my dad used to always take us to. I was afraid to walk past the gigantic pickle jar in the middle of the room, because there was always such a crowd of men talking about pickles,” she says. “Just trying to impress each other with, ‘Oh, hey, did you see that game last night?’ I had two older brothers who would be over with my dad, and I'd say, ‘I’ll just stand here and wait.’”
Nicoletti spent quite a bit of time at her grandfather’s butcher shop as a kid, learning about what went on behind the curtain. When she decided to take on the craft, her grandfather expressed caution about how difficult the industry can be. This idea, coupled with the fact that Seemore is led by women, hasn’t made things easy. “It's been very interesting cracking into the meat industry,” she says. “We’re a team of eight women—not a man in sight.”
"I’ve always loved being able to serve my female customers, who were probably a little hesitant to come up to the meat counter. I wanted to make it a safer place for them to come to and ask questions."
In the beginning, her sausages raised some male eyebrows. “The byproduct of sneaking vegetables into the sausages was that they took on really beautiful colors. It was a happy accident that the meat case became bejeweled,” Nicoletti explains. “And I remember men would come in and be like, ‘This is what happens when a woman makes the sausages.’ I always thought that was a strange comment. Why shouldn’t we all want the meat case to look beautiful?”
She has spent much of her career thinking about the way that meat is marketed towards men, developing fun, colorful packaging that would appeal to men, women, and even children. “I spent a lot of time in supermarket meat aisles, looking at all the packaging,” she explains. “It was as if everyone got into one room and was like, ‘We’re only going to use this shade of red, this shade of hunter green and black, and we’re going to have a sun and little farmhouse on the package."
When it came to choosing a name, Nicoletti tweaked the spelling of “Seymour” in a way that honored the brand’s transparency. “Sometimes I do feel like I’m one of the Brontë sisters who used a male pen name, just so that I could get on the shelf, but whatever gets us there,” she jokes.
The same sentiment is shared by Martinique Grigg and Clara Veniard, owners of Seattle’s Salumi deli, who noticed homogeny when developing their artisan salami line, Coro Foods. “Salami-making is definitely a more male-dominated space, and I think that’s reflected in the flavor profiles and packaging that you see when you order meat from a deli or see it in the grocery store,” Grigg explains. “There's a sea of sameness, and that’s one of the things that inspired me and Clara.”
Coro, which launched in 2020, is the only woman-owned, certified salami maker in the U.S., and this break with tradition is exhibited in their products. “We really felt the category lacked some of the creativity that you can find in chocolate, cheese, wine, or even beer nowadays,” Grigg explains. “I think being one of the few female producers out there gives us a little bit of freedom.”
Grigg and Veniard are not afraid to take risks when it comes to developing imaginative flavors. Their Mexican molé salami—which features notes of cocoa, cinnamon, and chipotle—is just one example. Unexpected ingredients like lemongrass, curry, and sweet leeks make their way into other varieties.
Coro products make use of the highest-grade pork, locally sourced spices, and an all-natural cure. “As mothers, we want to feel good about what we’re serving—knowing that it’s going to be special and tasty, but also have better-for-you ingredients.” And to make the salumi even more accessible, the casing is already peeled, eliminating the guesswork of whether or not it can be eaten.
Veniard was born to an Italian family who owned a large confection company in Argentina. She apprenticed with James Beard Award winner Joan Nathan, and had a brief stint in a not-so-friendly fine dining environment. Grigg has her background in business, as previous CEO of the outdoor organization The Mountaineers and product manager at L.L. Bean.
The duo inherited Salumi, a legendary, line-out-the-door Seattle institution, from the Batali family in 2017. They spent a year apprenticing, learning about everything from the ins and outs of the deli business to the art of salumi making, and eventually expanded to a new location offering some extra elbow room. There, they sell their Coro line, as well as additions that honor their characteristic creativity, like pancetta chocolate chip cookies.
“My partner, Clara, who has worked in fine dining, experienced some of the toxicity that you read about in the headlines,” Grigg explains. “So we wanted to create a company that was more of a collaborative workplace—one that strives for continuous improvement and respects the ideas and thoughts of all employees, so that when customers come into this space, it just feels more welcoming and inclusive.”
The original owner of the deli, Armandino Batali, is the father of New York chef Mario Batali, who has been accused of multiple cases of sexual assault. While Mario had no involvement in Salumi business, Grigg and Veniard have certainly done their part to stray away from that legacy.
“We’ve seen a change, even in our own demographic,” Grigg explains. “We haven’t tracked it specifically, but I can just say from being in and out of the deli, that there are a lot more women that feel comfortable coming to our deli than there have been historically.”
They’ve enacted a series of adjustments to make the space feel more open, like simplifying the menu and listing house-suggested specials. “One thing we had heard from old-time Salumi folks is that the menu’s pretty confusing,” Grigg says. “You kind of had to know the protocol and how to work your way through it. But quite often people want to just come and kind of explore.”
This openness can be seen at Cooperativa, too, as Schafer and Caporael work to ensure that everyone—staff and customers alike—are involved in the food-making process. “We wanted to step out of that idea where everyone felt like they were going into battle for the day and into this more nurturing aspect of what it means to create food,” Caporael says. “We thought, well, if we get everyone engaged, if customers can see Shannon stretching the dough in the morning, Julie pulling the pizza out of the oven, or Sarah actually making the handmade pasta they’re buying, they are more inclined to understand these are real people doing real things, taking time with the product that you eventually consume.”
This sense of community also goes for their vendors. “We wanted our farms to be prominently featured in the market—to come and hang out and do their vendor Saturdays where people actually get to talk to the farmers, so that everyone feels access.”
When it comes to the Italian deli, bringing a fresh perspective to such a time-honored establishment—all while navigating the challenges of the pandemic—is no easy feat. But the women who are reimagining this space are all finding support in each other.
“I do know a lot of female restaurateurs and other product and food makers,” Grigg says. “Having that support group is really important, especially when you’re in an industry that tends to be male dominated. It can validate how you might be coming at something from a different angle.”
“We found out quickly that we had a very trusting staff,” Schafer adds. “They were like, ‘Okay, we’re just going to trust that this is the right direction to go because we like working with you,’ which is something you couldn’t find for a while in this industry.”