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A Taste of Italy at Macri’s

Observer Scene | Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Until three years ago, Macri’s Deli, near East Race, was an easy spot for the downtown lunch break crowd during the day, and an ordinary sports bar with sandwiches and beer at night.

In 2006, owners George and Carmela Macri made the excellent decision to remodel and shift their focus towards an Italian bakery, also adding a gorgeous restaurant area (Carmela’s) more suitable to dinner crowds. Since then, the appropriately renamed Macri’s Italian Bakery has been a starting point for non-chain Italian food in South Bend.

Walking into Macri’s, the very first sensation to land is the smell. It seems ludicrous to think of the combined smell of cookies, cheeses, cakes, muffins and Italian meats as appetizing, but by some unique happening, here it works.

One is struck by the atmosphere immediately. Despite its upmarket style, Macri’s presents an easygoing atmosphere, probably due to the helpful and interested staff, and the easy booths and tables. Displays of groceries not offered elsewhere, like pizza dough and raw specialty pasta, are surrounded by painted murals of Italian scenes. None of the décor comes off as authentically Italian, but to the Macri family’s credit, the restaurant has an undeniable Italian feel, especially when coupled with the food.

The two most popular sandwiches are the Italian Grinder and the Sicilian Turkey, and for good reason. These sandwiches best suit the Macri’s style of fresh ingredients paired with ideal preparation, and they are sized to fill – a half sandwich would fill most.

The Sicilian Turkey (turkey, tomato, lettuce, mozzarella, Italian dressing) is mostly standard, but the ingredients and the exceptional Italian dressing make it just different enough to be worth trying. Although the other sandwiches (ham and swiss, vegetable, grilled tomato and muffalata) offer solid fare, most outstanding is the overall favorite, the Italian Grinder (salami, coppa, mortadella, provolone, roasted red peppers and again, Italian dressing). This gives a rich, almost spicy taste that truly is redolent of Italy. Diners who have room would be well-advised to try a side, such as one of the many pasta salads, or the excellent mozzarella balls with roasted red peppers mixed in with fresh tomatoes that even a tomato-hater can enjoy.

A visit to the deli is incomplete without a dessert from the bakery. Perhaps most famous for its cakes, they also serve superb pastries, donuts and especially cookies. Pleasantly filled after our sandwiches, my companion and I were reluctantly willing to spring for desert and we were recommended the highlights of each case. The Morning Glory carrot cake-type muffin was fine, as was the glazed donut, but probably best for, well, morning. The variety of cannoli would be agreeable especially to those who like them cheesy. The “delights” were slices of swirled cake with creamy filling. The amaretto delight with cherry was wonderful and not too fruity, but was still enough for more than one sitting. Lastly, the well-sized peanut butter and plain chocolate chip cookies were just right – slightly crunchy and chewy in all the right places.

For first-timers, there is an effective process for taking in the entire scene. Park off Hill Street, enter Macri’s and take a deep breath. Then, walk by the bakery and pretend to notice only slightly the cases of pastries and desserts as you intelligently size up the groceries to the right. At the deli counter, order the Italian Grinder and maybe a side, while keeping in mind everything you smelled at the bakery. After your sandwich, take a peek into the Tuscan-decorated Carmela’s restaurant as you digest (Valentine’s diners take note: the romantic Carmela’s is still taking reservations for Friday night, but is all booked Saturday). Lastly, visit the bakery for your choice of a dessert or two, and know that you can’t go wrong.

Contact J.J. Rees at jrees@nd.edu.