A Santa Monica tradition for 90 years, the Bay Cities experience is rewarding with every bite

By Bethney Bonilla (bethney.bonilla@gmail.com)

The Godmother with the works: Genoa salami, prosciutto, mortadella, coppacola, ham, provolone cheese, mayo, mustard, Italian dressing, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles and a chopped pepper blend — all between fresh-baked bread. Photo by Tim Costner / thirstyreader.com

The Godmother with the works: Genoa salami, prosciutto, mortadella, coppacola, ham, provolone cheese, mayo, mustard, Italian dressing, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickles and a chopped pepper blend — all between fresh-baked bread.
Photo by Tim Costner / thirstyreader.com

These days it seems like the thing to do is whatever keeps showing up on your Instagram feed. A staple in Santa Monica since 1925, Bay Cities Italian Deli & Bakery has remained a staple in the hearts and stomachs of locals for years. Judging by the many high school students and young professionals who frequent there, Bay Cities trumps contemporary notions of what it means to be trendy and cool.

Something of an Italian fairy godmother’s house to locals, the uninitiated may face brutal looks when confessing to never having taken part in the sacred experience of eating a Bay Cities sub. Believe me, I know. I recently went off seeking my first Bay Cities experience without much research (except for word of mouth) and a very empty stomach.

Like some sort of culinary Ellis Island across the ocean of traffic that is Lincoln Boulevard, she stands proudly opening her doors to first-time diners — though my bet is that most people who come through here are return visitors.

They’d have to be. It took me about 15 minutes of finding parking and five minutes of crowd-dodging before seeing enough of the place to realize that Bay Cities is actually a gourmet market, its aisles fully stocked with everything from domestic groceries to the fanciest looking imported wines and cheeses.

Fortunately, the deli counter is easy to spot. Just look for the crowd of people eagerly waiting before it. Though practically starving, I saw the wait as a good omen. My food philosophy is that when time permits, go for the place with the longest line — the longer the line, the better the food in most cases.

A consequence of my newcomer status, I waited among my fellow sandwich seekers for a few moments before realizing I was the only one without a number in hand. This is a place that keeps it old-school, with the crew yelling out numbers and taking orders at a rapid pace. To the listening ear, the voices behind the counter slowly blend into sounding like an Italian family gathering.

There is an urban hustle-and-bustle atmosphere within the walls of this popular gourmet deli, which is why I wouldn’t recommend that a first-timer take on the experience alone. Veteran deli enthusiasts and high-school cliques flurry by you, so it could help to have someone there to show you the ropes and ease the lonely wait time. I should admit, however, that the smell of fresh-baked bread and the sight of homemade Italian specialties in the display windows do make for great company.

Either way, it’s no large matter. It was less than 10 minutes before a deli worker called my number and charmed me with impeccable customer service as he took my order. Then I blended back into the crowd as I waited for my small Caprese sub ($6.25).

Among the yelling of numbers and mumbling of orders, I caught on to some common phrases here: “the Godmother” and “the works.” “The Godmother” seemed to be a popular order among the high school volleyball players and even the businessmen in their slick, black coats. I later discovered that sub to be the motherlode of Italian sandwiches, with layers of Genoa salami, prosciutto, mortadella, coppacola, ham and provolone cheese on top of fresh bread smothered with “the works” — mayo, mustard, Italian dressing, onions, pickles, tomatoes, lettuce and a chopped pepper blend. This time I was more than happy with my simple and elegant Caprese, but to each his own.

On the way out the door with my sandwich I grabbed a box of colorful macaroons ($5.98) as well as a green tea in a glass bottle. Beverage options are somewhat endless here, the fridges filled with gourmet sodas and just about everything else.

The fragrance beaming out of my tightly wrapped sub had me rushing to sit on the closest concrete bench and sink my teeth into it. The two heavenly pieces of dense, crisp bread held together the most delicious flavors of fresh ingredients. The thick pieces of mozzarella with onion, tomato, basil, oregano, oil and balsamic vinegar had a cool, salty taste and were matched together in perfect proportion.

That small sub satisfied every bit of my hunger, enough even to fill the void of eating alone and not having a companion to rave about it to.

Now a member of the Bay Cities fan club, I can say without any hesitation: Go! Go alone, go with a buddy — just go! And if you must go alone and hate to wait, I’ve now learned you can order online.

Bay Cities Italian Deli & Bakery | 1517 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica | (310) 395-8279 | baycitiesitaliandeli.com

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