Positioned on the sidewalk in front of Salumeria 2703, the A-frame sign basically serves the same function that Luther, the anger translator, did for President Barack Obama: It bluntly explains the inner workings of something opaque to many Americans.
The sign clarifies — curtly, if not vociferously — that the salumeria is an “Italian deli.”
Most mornings, I imagine Ettore Rusciano, the chef and co-owner behind Salumeria 2703 and Menomale in Brookland, places the sandwich board outside through clenched teeth. Sure, there are countless Italian delis in the United States, but back in Rusciano’s home country, the term “deli” must make most Italians snort espresso from their nostrils.
Consider: Delicatessen is derived from German and French words, which can be loosely translated into “delicacies or fine food.” This is a definition without a boundary. Salumeria, by contrast, reveals its purpose right in its name: a place to buy salumi, the Italian term for salted, or cured, meats. When you visit a salumeria in Rome, you will bob and weave your way around cured hams, which hang from the ceiling like punching bags.
In practice, of course, Italian salumerie are more than meat markets. They also sell fresh cheeses, aged cheeses, cured olives, olive oils, pastas, Brunellos, Barbarescos, Chiantis, focaccia breads and maybe even white truffles from Alba in the fall. Rusciano fondly remembers the salumeria of his youth in Naples. They were places to shop for dinner ingredients, not for dinner itself. He never frequented salumerie for prepared sandwiches.
He and his wife and business partner, Maria, were hoping to replicate the Italian salumeria experience with their Brookland shop. When they opened Salumeria 2703 last summer, the couple stocked the glass display cases with cured meats — salame Toscano, sopressata grande, mortadella, Genoa salami, cotto and more — and lined its shelves with all manner of products imported from Italy. They made pastas and sauces for takeaway.
“We were trying to see if it could work without the sandwiches at the beginning,” Ettore says.
It didn’t work. Business was slower than the Ruscianos wanted, so they expanded their salumeria to include homemade sandwiches and lasagnas. Label it a compromise if you want. I prefer to think the prepared foods were inevitable. Washington is not Rome, and locals expect a salumeria to stuff its cured meats inside two slices of bread, along with some cheese, onions and tomatoes, if necessary. It’s just the reality of American life: We regularly seek meals outside the home.
With all due respect to Maria and Ettore Rusciano, Salumeria 2703 is a better place with the sandwiches. This is not a knock against their fresh pastas, each produced from a machine that silently spits out fettuccine, fusilli, bucatini and other shapes on a counter by the window, a process that can induce hypnosis if you stare at it too long. The toothsome pasta serves as an excellent partner to the shop’s custom marinara, a soft-spoken, basil-perfumed sauce that allows the San Marzano tomatoes to have the last word.
But when I start craving Salumeria 2703, my thoughts immediately turn to its bread, a miniature baguette that required weeks of R&D before Ettore Rusciano perfected the recipe. His bread starts with a dough built from Italian “00” flour, water, salt and a pinch of yeast. It makes for a crusty loaf, with a tighter interior crumb than your average baguette’s, but with all the flavor of a dough fermented 24 hours or longer. I’ve been known to sit in front of the TV, mindlessly dipping hunks of this bread into the shop’s house-made pesto, a luxuriant, Parmesan-and-walnut-thickened sauce in which the basil somehow drills right through the richness.
As with any quality sandwich, the bread is more than an Uber driver for the fillings. Salumeria 2703’s baguette provides texture, chew and even a discernible hit of salt, stacking pleasures upon pleasures. One thing you’ll notice — assuming you’re an American who frequents Italian delis — is that the sandwichmakers here don’t pile the meats high, as if stacking wood for winter. Their approach is more Old World, more refined, a search for harmony between the bread and fillings. It will no doubt annoy those used to meat wads tucked into hard hoagie rolls.
But one bite of the spicy Calabrese soppressata sandwich — the sliced meat is layered, shale-like, with shavings of sharp provolone and thin strips of roasted eggplant — and you’ll realize that none of the ingredients is beaten down by the bread. They speak almost at full volume, thanks to a staff that hollows out the baguette to maintain the proper balance. The approach works for almost every sandwich, save for the one filled with a dime-thin layer of Genoa salami, whose charms are held hostage by the sharp provolone and bread. Those who demand a dense bite can dig into the sandwich packed with cotto and ricotta. Just don’t expect exponentially more flavor: The cooked ham and cheese whisper their seductions.
Should you have time on your hands, Salumeria 2703 also sells tins of house-made lasagna, which you can bake at home for a relatively quick meal. The meat and spinach lasagnas are frugal preparations, despite lengthy ingredient lists. Frankly, neither inspires repeat performances: The ground-beef version proves light and soupy, while the spinach deals more in cheese than sauce.
You have plenty of options for dessert, whether made in house or shipped from Italy. A cooler in the back contains the imports, some packed into glassware that’s yours to keep once you finish the confection. Best among the Italian jobs is the tiramisu, rich and velvety, but only if you let the dessert defrost in your own fridge for a few hours. Otherwise it’s a soaked ladyfingers Icee. The cannoli shells are pre-filled in-house with sheep’s milk ricotta mixed with orange zest, sugar and chocolate chips, a combination so dense that it borders on frosting. Heavy, yes, but delicious.
The cannoli perhaps offer a preview of Ettore and Maria Rusciano’s next project: an Italian bakery and gelateria in Brookland. Their hope is, one day, to create a block of shops dedicated to Italian specialties. It’s a dream that gets me as excited as Roberto Benigni on Oscar night.
2703 12th St. NE, 202-699-2397, salumeria2703.com.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday; noon to 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday.
Nearest Metro: Rhode Island Avenue-Brentwood, with a half-mile walk to the deli.
Prices: $9.25 to $10.75 for sandwiches; $9 to $14 per pound for take-home dishes and special-order items.