The guy who clears the tables can tell you a lot about a restaurant.
Tony Villani, the owner of Little Deli in the Crestview shopping center on Woodrow Avenue, can tell you something about his pizza crust: 'I clear a lot of tables. And I'll tell you, I see little to no crust being thrown away. It's all being eaten.'
Villani grew up in New Jersey, with deep Italian roots. His Austin restaurant career includes time with the late Chez Fred and Shields Pizza, plus Mozart's and a gourmet food delivery service. He talks about pizza dough with the precision of a scientist and the passion of an apostle. Little Deli began as a sandwich shop in 1992. And Villani bought it in 2006 from original owners Lucretia and Jonathan Doyer with that mission still intact. But pizza is hardly an afterthought. Construction on the pizza part of the operation got started in the summer of 2008. It became sort of a running joke, Villani says. 'Customers kept asking, "You got pizza yet"? "Two weeks," I'd say.'
Two weeks stretched to months, but by the time he started selling pizza in May, Villani had created a maniacal demand for his East Coast pie.
Little Deli pizza is big and foldable, available by the slice between $3 and $4 or in pies that range from $11.50 to $19.50. The crust has a gorgeous, mottled toast. It crackles. It holds up even under a layer of grease laid down by the pepperoni on a lunchtime slice. The crispiness mellows into a soft chew all the way to the edge. A slice with browned Italian sausage is even better. The tomato sauce is bold and bright, and there's just the right amount to soften and sweeten the pizza without making it soggy.
The sandwiches we eat are fine. Not in the same league as the pizza, but that would be saying something. Roast beef and cheddar ($5.99) on a better-than-average poppyseed kaiser roll is brought to life with horseradish sauce. I'm thrilled to my middle-class roots by a simple sandwich of brassy liverwurst ($5.69) on soft rye from New World Bakery. You know what would make that rye bread even better? Toasting it for a Reuben. This Reuben ($6.29) won't make you forget Manny Hattan's or Katz's, but it's solid, with a sweet Thousand Island dressing, good corned beef and sauerkraut that would benefit from more sauer, more kraut, more everything.
I visit on one of the twice-monthly lasagna days. Too late. 'It was gone in less than hour,' the cashier tells me. Faster than free U2 tickets in Berlin.
The shopping center where Little Deli carves out its 1,000 square feet looks like the set of a Coen Brothers movie, storefronts from a simpler time. The pharmacy across the street? Javier Bardem could come storming out at any minute, 'No Country' style. There's a dry cleaner, a barber shop and an IGA Mini-Mart that's been there since the '50s.
'People say they feel like they're in a small town in the middle of Texas somewhere that time forgot,' Villani says.
In Little Deli's slice of that small town, there are just a few tables in the shop itself, where you place your order with the sociable staff and scan the dessert case for something good from Russell's Bakery. The tables and walls carry photo collages of what could only be customers from Little Deli's past — and judging from the baby pictures, its future. Outside, a handful of picnic tables are set under the sidewalk awning and under a few sprawling trees. A wooden gazebo anchors the outdoor dining diorama.
Little Deli allows you to bring your own beer and wine. The staff will open it for you, offer cups and even ice it down.
For now, this is how Little Deli rolls. But who knows? Maybe weekend hours are on the way. Maybe calzones and eggplant parm and garlic knots. Maybe more. Villani isn't ruling anything out.
'There's a blank page on our menu, so...'
7101-A Woodrow Ave. 467-7402, www.littledeli.net
Rating (casual dining):7.5 out of 10
Hours:11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. (Closed Thanksgiving Day and Friday this week.)
Prices:Hot and cold sandwiches $5.69-$6.29. Salads $2.49 (garden) to $6.29 (chef, tuna). Pizza starts at $3 a slice. Whole pizzas are $11.50 for a medium-sized cheese to $17.50 for most of the specialty large pies.
Payment:All major cards
Alcohol:Soft drinks only. But they'll ice down the beer you bring with you and uncork your wine and offer plastic glasses for no charge. Across the parking lot, the IGA Mini-Mart conveniently stocks hundreds of wines and beers.
What the rating means:The average of weighted scores for food, service, atmosphere and value