Hot Buns & Tasty Meat. That’s the attention grabber Zella’s Deli partners Mike Reppert, John Tressler and Ivy Lamos stenciled in big block letters across two panels of plate glass window of the street-side restaurant they opened on College Street downtown in April 2022.

Tressler and Reppert were both raised in the Northeast – PA and NY respectively – and were men on a mission. “In the northeast, there are neighborhood delis, ethnic delis, everywhere,” says Tressler. “I moved here 23 years ago and in all that time, there had not been anything similar to what I grew up with. Classic sandwiches, easy and quick, simple and delicious.”

“Asheville needed a deli,” Reppert states more succinctly

So, they stepped up, building a menu of hot sandwiches, cold sandwiches, breakfast options like bacon, egg and cheese on a Kaiser, a trio of basic salads – Caesar, chef and Greek – and a slate of extras familiar to deli devotees, including a knish, matzo ball soup, whole sour pickles and cheesecake.

Tressler and Reppert both have an eponymous sandwich meaningful to them (Lamos, a vegetarian, declined the designation, though there is a vegan roast beef option.)

On the cold side of the menu, in addition to salami with mustard, whitefish salad, liverwurst on white bread, lox on a bagel, and egg salad, is Johnny’s Italian, a reference not to Tressler’s ancestry but to his lifelong favorite sandwich.

“I grew up in a small town near Pittsburgh and there were not a lot of restaurants, but the one thing consistent on menus there was an Italian sub,” Tressler recalls. “Some people called it a hoagie. I knew it was something I liked, so it was what I always ordered. Even today, if there’s an Italian sub on a menu, I order it, just to see how they do it. No one does it the same way.”

The Johnny way – perfected over the years – begins with the adage ‘keep it simple.’  “A lot of places overdo it with the bread, too much lettuce, too much veg, complicated dressings or God forbid, mayonnaise. A mortal sin on an Italian sub.”

At Zella’s, the Johnny begins with the roll, brought in from J. J. Cassone Bakery in Port Chester, NY. “It’s not so hard it ruins the roof of your mouth but not so chewy it overwhelms the meat and cheese. This is right in the middle.”

From there, it has to be quality, fresh-sliced meats and cheese, no lunch meat. Lightly spiced capicola ham, salami, pepperoni and provolone. “If you don’t use provolone, it’s not an Italian sub,” Tressler insists.  “Dressing is very important – red wine vinegar, olive oil, oregano and salt and pepper. Chopped crispy lettuce and sliced tomato to keep it moist without overdressing. That’s it.”

Reppert’s meatball memories go back to when he and his mother lived with his maternal grandparents – the Maruzella home, thus the deli name – and his grandfather made spaghetti and meatballs every week.  “The meatball sub is an homage to him,” Reppert explains. “He never told me the meatball recipe, so I recreated it from my memory. The day we opened my mom had the meatballs and wanted to know how I got it so right.”

He shares the basics: soak stale bread in milk for about ten minutes, add it to your mix of ground meats – beef, pork and veal if you can get it, but never just beef — eggs, spices, salt and pepper, then roll them tight. “At home I pan fry them,” Reppert says. “But in the restaurant, we bake them. Then finish them in the tomato sauce.”

Mikey’s Meatball uses the same roll from Casson’s, lightly toasted; line up the meatballs, slightly break them, cover in sauce and top with shredded Pecorino Romano or Parmesan, provolone on request.

The meatball sub can be messy, but not as messy as the recently added Chopped Cheese, a quintessential New York creation common to corner delis and bodegas. “We started it as a special and people loved it,” says Reppert. “If we’re calling ourselves a New York deli, we have to do it.”

Zella’s has built a devoted fan base of other Northeastern immigrants, but Reppert adds with a laugh that they are also their fiercest critics. “They are not afraid to tell us what we’re doing wrong or how unhappy they are with a sandwich.”

**Zella’s Deli is moving in April from College Street in downtown Asheville to Swannanoa, taking over the former Loott House at 2372 US 70. Imperial, which has operated on the second floor of the deli as a mezcaleria and cocktail bar, will take over the entire space, putting a taproom where Zella’s is now. The current Zella’s Deli menu will be available on all delivery apps, and on site at the new Zella’s Deli & Restaurant. Dinner will be added, built on a simple, affordable, family friendly Italian model. For more details, follow Zella’s on FB and IG.

For more about Zella’s Deli, visit zellasdeli.com.

Written by Kay West