"Which flavor do you want to try?" asks the manager of the Nundini deli on North Shepherd in the Heights. He's standing behind ten colorful vats of Italian gelati and sorbetti in an ice cream case.
"All of them," I confess. There aren't a lot of customers, so manager Marion Jones starts handing me samples on little plastic spoons. You get a free scoop of gelato when you order a sandwich at Nundini deli, and having finished my sandwich, I'm making the most of my dessert.
"What part of Italy are you from?" I ask Jones in jest as he hands me a taste of strawberry sorbetto.
Nundini Food Store Muffuletta$6.95 Roasted vegetable sandwich: $6.95 Prosciutto sandwich: $6.95 Gelato: $1.50 Espresso: $1.62 Cannoli: 65 cents
500 North Shepherd
713-861-6331; Hours: Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
"The black part," he answers wryly. The strawberry is just okay, but the raspberry sorbetto that follows is unbelievably intense. It ties with the snow-white peach sorbetto as the best sherbet I've ever tasted.
"The peach is slammin'," Jones agrees. One of the more unusual gelato flavors is cassata; made with spiced fruits and nougat, it has a sort of liquor flavor. "I know, it tastes like rum, but it doesn't have any in it," Jones assures me. "Here, this is our rum flavor," he says, handing me another spoon. The rum gelato is boring by comparison.
Vanilla is even more boring, and the mango sorbetto tastes kind of funky. But the chocolate is incredibly rich. A flavor called torroncino is made from an Italian candy.
"Different, huh?" Jones says as he observes my facial expression.
The term gelato is now used in Italy for any ice cream or water ice, writes Italian food authority Faith Heller Willinger at epicurious.com. But technically only those made with dairy products are true gelati (as opposed to sorbetti, which are made without milk). And she says there are three varieties: "Sicilian (made with milk, but no egg yolks); Tuscan (from a milk-based custard) and Northern (from a cream-based custard)." Nundini sells the Sicilian version made with a double-pasteurized whole milk and no egg yolks. The gelati are very good, but Nundini's sorbetti are absolutely outrageous.
A couple who has just eaten lunch asks Jones if he'll be making any lavender sorbetto this year. Jones assures them he will.
"Wow, I've never seen lavender sorbetto," I enthuse.
"We made tuna-and-balsamic vinegar sorbetto for some Japanese dignitaries last month," Jones says.
"You mean tuna like the Mexican word for prickly pear fruit, right?" I assume.
"No, I mean tuna like the fish," he says. "These Japanese guys brought this huge fish in here and we made sorbetto out of it."
"Raw? Like sushi sorbetto?"
"That's right," Jones says. "They eat it on crackers."
"Do you have any left?"
"You're going to microwave my muffuletta?" I ask in horror as Marion Jones prepares to punch the buttons. The muffuletta came out of the refrigerator.
"Just to melt the cheese," he says defensively. "I could toast it on the panini press instead if you want."
"Let's do that," I agree.
Jones confesses that everybody has their own ideas about sandwiches and he's trying to strike a balance. "Some people want them hot, some want them cold. Just tell me what you're after, and we'll take care of you," he says.
We have ordered a muffuletta and a prosciutto and fresh mozzarella sandwich. Nundini imports sandwich breads from an Italian bakery in Dallas, and (with the exception of the refrigerated muffuletta) they toast their sandwiches on an Italian panini press. All of the ingredients are top-quality Italian imports.
That's because Nundini is actually a wholesale operation that sells Italian specialties to restaurants and other businesses all over town. Along with the imported foods, they also sell desserts. They make several varieties of cannoli, cakes and pastries, as well as the sorbetti and gelati, on the premises.
Housed in an industrial-looking building on North Shepherd near I-10, the warehouse has a showroom in the front where chefs and restaurant owners sample the company's wholesale products. That space now doubles as a retail store and deli. You can buy imported Italian pasta, unusual olive oils and all manner of gourmet European chocolates here, or eat lunch at one of the eight tables set up in the middle of the store. "Mostly we do gelato, desserts and espresso," says Jones, who has never worked in a restaurant before. Between the wholesale showroom atmosphere and Jones's inexperience, the place exudes a sort of accidental restaurant vibe.
When our sandwiches are delivered, we are not impressed. The prosciutto and mozzarella panini tastes plain. And the muffuletta is very dry. I take my sandwich apart and inspect the innards. The meats and cheeses look good. The stiff, round muffuletta bun is very close to the original. But the olive salad is rather minimalist. Central Grocery, the little French Quarter deli that invented the muffuletta, loads its olive salad with parsley, capers and herbs, as well as olives and peppers. And they put a lot more olive salad on each sandwich, which means the runoff olive oil soaks the bread and softens it. The bottom half of the Nundini muffuletta bun, by contrast, is completely dry.
I figure the sandwich could be easily fixed by spreading a tablespoon of olive oil on the bottom bun. And I think some oil, plus a few slices of tomato, would really zip up the prosciutto and mozzarella sandwich. So I go see Marion Jones.
"You got it," he says when he hears my request. He hands me a whole bottle of olive oil, which has already been opened for customer sampling; he also slices some tomato and puts it on a plate for me. "Seriously," he reiterates, "just tell me how you want your sandwich and we can make it that way."
On a second visit, I get more creative and ask for a mortadella sandwich with the addition of hard salami and some extra olive oil. Many people abhor mortadella, the famous sausage from the Italian city of Bologna, because it has big squares of fat in it. But I think the bland American lunch meat called bologna and pronounced "baloney" is a lame imitation. At Nundini, they slice the authentic spicy Bologna sausage thin and pile it high. The sandwich is fabulous.
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My lunch companion wants the grilled vegetable sandwich, but the deli is all out of roasted eggplant. So Jones suggests the substitution of tapenade, a thick paste made of olives and capers. The sandwich comes on crunchy grilled panini bread. Loaded with sweet roasted red peppers and topped with gooey fresh mozzarella, it's a smash hit of a vegetarian sandwich. And I bet it's even better with the missing eggplant.
All the sandwiches come with a bag of chips and a drink, as well as the aforementioned scoop of gelato. After we've dispatched our sandwiches, we stand in front of the gelato case, hyperventilating. A bright green pistachio-flavored gelato has replaced the vanilla. I taste a bunch of flavors for the second time before settling on the pistachio. My friend goes for the intense raspberry sorbetto.
"Wow, that was good. I think it's the high-quality olive oil that really makes the sandwiches," she says as we pull out of the parking lot.
"I think it's the gelato," I tell her.