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A master of delicate and gruff

on May 28, 2009

Dominic De Vincenzi remembers early mornings in the 1950s, when the intersection of 51st Street and Telegraph Avenue was the heart of Oakland’s Italian community.

Long lines of customers formed as soon as 7 a.m. at Genova Deli—then a cramped, 600-square-foot store owned by his father-in-law—as workers poured in to buy their lunches or treat themselves after working the graveyard shift.

Appetites were beastly and it was common for customers to bicker over their place in line, so in the 1960s, De Vincenzi decided it was time for a system of order that might have impressed Mussolini.

Each customer would have to take a number and wait their turn, no ifs ands or buts about it. De Vincenzi, whose last name means “of the victor” in Italian, still smiles at how the new regime worked.

“They used to fight,” said Vincenzi, 77, now the sole owner of this Temescal institution. “I put the numbers in, they couldn’t argue.”

More than four decades later, hundreds of people still pull a number every day, often enduring lengthy lines for delicacies served up with a playful bit of crust. His recipe for success, De Vincenzi said, is a business model based on the idea that every customer deserves to have a sandwich crafted with care, even when they forget the long wait will be good for them.

“Everything’s got to be precise,” De Vincenzi explained recently as customers poured in for a typically crowded lunch hour. “The little things add up. You’ve got a drop of water before you get an ocean. It’s the same way with sand. You’ve got a drop of sand before you get a desert. It’s the small particles that make it work.”

Genova’s history in the neighborhood dates back to 1926, when it began as a business that sold groceries and hand-made ravioli. De Vincenzi came to work in 1951, when he married the owner’s daughter.

By 1965 he had become sole owner of the business, and moved the ravioli-making operation to Walnut Creek, where a Genova Deli still operates. Yet the two businesses are now separate entity, as family members later had what De Vincenzi describes as a “difference of opinion” and decided to go separate ways. De Vincenzi took over the ravioli factory and his brother-in-law kept the Walnut Creek deli.

Over the years the neighborhood began to change around the deli. Old Italian families began to move out, he said, and a more ethnically diverse population moved in. The staff, which is now almost entirely Latino, reflects that change. De Vincenzi, his son and one other worker are the only employees of Italian origin who still work in the store.

“There’s not too many old-timers left,” De Vincenzi said. “I’m getting to be the old-timer.”

The customer base remained steady, though, even as old faces began to drift to the suburbs. In 1996, after deciding the old storefront was cramped, the deli moved into its current location in a strip mall that includes a Walgreen Co. drugstore, a post office and other businesses.

The store now sells up to 1,000 sandwiches per day versus the 300 to 400 per day sold at the old location, according to Manager Julio De La Cruz. The Italian Combo—a mountain of mortadella, galentina, cotto salami, dry salami and provolone cheese covered with fresh vegetables and fresh bread—remains the deli’s most popular recipe, but the deli has developed new recipes to please customers who prefer vegetarian options and local ingredients.

Workers at the deli are happy to accommodate special orders, De Vincenzi said, as long as they’re willing to endure playful barbs as they wait for their number to show up on his trusty screen.

“I ask them, ‘do you want this sandwich today?’” De Vincenzi said. “I say, ‘you’re going to have to pick your order up tomorrow.’”

But it’s all in the name of good food, De Vincenzi said, and tomorrow might just be the right day.

“Quality is always a bargain,” De Vincenzi said. “We’re not here to make money, we’re here to make friends.”

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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