Six decades of meatballs and marinara sauce
by Richard Foss
In 1953 Dwight Eisenhower was President, Elvis Presley graduated from high school, and a fellow named Michelangelo Mance started a deli in Hermosa Beach. His clientele included surfers who showed up with whatever pocket change they could scrape together. To keep them happy he started selling marinara sauce sandwiches for five cents each.
Sixty-four years later Mickey’s Deli is still serving beachgoers, though the marinara sauce sandwich now costs a buck and a half. The convenience store with a sandwich counter has an old school charm, and you feel part of history when dining at the worn wooden table. Beachgoers have been knocking back sandwiches, salads, and simple pastas there since cars had fins, radios had tubes, and rock and roll was a novelty that might catch on.
The ordering system here is simple: scope out the pizzas and salads in the deli case until you see something you like, and if nothing beckons then pick out a sandwich or pasta from the list over the deli counter. Now that you know what you want, wait patiently in line for the busiest guy in the South Bay to take your order. (Pro tip: have somebody in your party fetch the sodas from the fridge case now, not later.)
Every time I visit anywhere near lunch or dinner time the person at the counter is answering a stream of phone calls for to-go orders, ringing up stuff that customers bring from the aisles and drink cases, and fetching liquor that people want from the shelves. In between, he also takes your food order, rings it up, and sends it over to the cooking staff. He does not have time to talk about the weather or any other topic, and it makes his job a lot easier if you have your drinks right there rather than holding up the line because you didn’t think about this until you were at the front.
Once your order comes up, you have four choices: eat it at the long wooden table inside, the picnic table outside, on the beach, or take it home. Options one through three do not allow you to consume alcohol, so, though Mickey’s has a decent beer selection you won’t be popping that bottle there. They have all the usual sodas and some boutique items, so if you’re dining in grab your favorite.
If you are visiting Mickey’s for the first time, here’s what you need to know: with the exception of the salads in the deli case, everything is larger and more filling than you expect. The salads are constrained by those plastic containers which can only be packed so tight before the contents turn into the stuff at the center of black holes and develop its own gravity, so you have a pretty good idea of how much you are getting. Otherwise let’s just say that the small sandwiches are large, and the large ones are really best suited to two people.
The small Ruben Deluxe is about a pound of messy fun: grilled pastrami with cheese, sauerkraut, the usual vegetables, and Thousand Island dressing inside a fresh Italian roll. I can’t imagine how anybody eats one and goes into the water without sinking like a stone. It’s good, but you really should order the meatball sandwich, because the meat and marinara are both from a recipe that goes back to the founding of the restaurant. This is classic East Coast Italian cooking, the sauce robust and richly herbal, the meatballs a dense mix of beef and pork.
As for the pizzas, if you order one here to consume solo you haven’t just started a meal, you have started a relationship. Why do I know this? Because I ordered a Mickey’s Special (various deli meats, black olives, purple onion, tomato, and cheese) for dinner, figuring I’d have enough left over for lunch the following day. I managed about a quarter of it and ate the rest over the course of the week. It was a good pizza with a medium crust that had a nice bready chew, but I was a wee bit tired of those flavors by the third rerun. They sell slices here, people, and if you don’t want to take leftovers you should order them.
They make pastas too, and I have tried the meat lasagna and chicken parmesan over spaghetti. These fit right in with the theme, liberal amounts of meat, pasta, and sauce completed with plenty of stringy melted mozzarella goodness. Is it life-changingly brilliant? No. Is it darn good, and by the way, surprisingly inexpensive? Yep. Would I get either again? Heck yes, especially if I have somebody around to help me finish it or I know I’m going to be too busy to cook the next day.
Mickey’s is a beach classic that is still in the family and is by far the oldest continuously operated business in Hermosa. It’s a relic of a bygone era when five cents would buy a meal, and after over six decades it’s still going strong.
Mickey’s is at 101 Hermosa Avenue in Hermosa. Open daily at 8 a.m, close 11 p.m. Sun. — Thurs, midnight Fri. — Sat. Street parking only, no drinking on premises, some vegetarian items. Menu at mickeysdeli.com. (310) 376-2330.