Everyone knows about the neighborhood deli: it’s a prime destination for a quick sandwich, friendly service, or a low-key dining atmosphere. Some delis stick to these fundamentals, while others go above and beyond, taking advantage of the best ingredients, going out of their way to please customers, and always trying to improve. Although we are not deli aficionados, we know what separates good eateries from exceptional ones, and it is clear that Michael’s Deli has the potential to be a Wesleyan favorite.
Owner Chris Arena opened Michael’s Deli just this summer, but his fresh-baked cookies are already being sold in stores, restaurants, and even gas stations throughout southern Connecticut. They also cater events within the region. Yet Arena wasn’t always a restaurant owner: before he opened Michael’s, he was involved in the world of finance.
“I had a successful career for about 10 years making loans for people, but I just couldn’t take it anymore,” Arena said.
In July 2012 he opened Michael’s, named after his friend Michael Sage, an attorney who died of cardiac arrhythmia at the age of 29. Along with the Michael Vincent Sage Dragonheart Foundation, which provides AED machines to schools and public establishments, the deli pays tribute to Arena’s friend with its name.
Arena had one simple goal in mind when opening the deli: he wanted to have a restaurant where people could get a good meal. The menu is full of things Arena likes to eat, as well as dishes he learned to make while working in restaurants in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, and Connecticut.
Almost everything at the deli is made from scratch every day, with a few exceptions. The bread is shipped in daily from Arthur Avenue, which is widely considered the center of Italian food in New York City, and the gelato comes from a New Haven company. All the dressings, baked goods, soups, salads, and sandwiches, however, are completely homemade.
Arena is not only adamant about serving fresh products, but is also a huge zealot for quality.
“We really care about the food,” he said. “At some places, if you get a six-dollar sandwich, chances are you’re going to feel like taking a shower afterward. For us, there is no substitute for good quality meats. The biggest checks we write are to Boar’s Head for the deli meats.”
Arena is also committed to maintaining consistency from one meal to the next. He wants to make sure his customers get exactly what they pay for, with no gimmicks or tricks.
“Our subs cost nine bucks, but it’s half a pound of meat,” Arena explained. “We weigh it out every time. We’re very interested in being consistent. For example, all of the cookies are 4.5 ounces.”
Although the price may seem steep, it makes sense when you consider that these are no ordinary sandwiches. They engulf the entire plate, and your choice of homemade dressing complements their flavors.
During our visit, Arena was insistent that we make ourselves at home. He encouraged us to grab drinks and sit wherever we liked as he worked in the kitchen, preparing our forthcoming feast.
The meal started with the chicken pesto sandwich, which consisted of grilled chicken, spinach, tomato, provolone, and pesto mayonnaise, served on onion focaccia bread.
“This is the thing that got the whole thing started,” Arena said. “It’s our best-seller.”
We were still reeling over this sandwich when the next one came out: a buffalo chicken panini, made with breaded chicken cutlet, covered in melted provolone cheese and dressed with bleu cheese.
But we weren’t finished there. The next course was a true turkey Reuben, authentic and served with homemade Thousand Island dressing and a crunchy coleslaw layer. The rye bread, which comes from a bakery in Meriden, was toasted to a warm crisp.
“We serve this one with a pickle because, you know, it’s not a Reuben without a pickle,” Arena joked.
The next two courses were a chicken Caesar wrap (charred yet moist grilled chicken, crunchy lettuce, and shredded Asiago cheese, bundled up in a fresh tortilla) and an Italian combo, which was the closest thing to a typical deli sandwich we were served.
Lest we mislead you, Michael’s doesn’t only serve sandwiches and wraps. We also ate meatballs so authentic you might think they were imported from Italy, as well as tangy Korean barbecue wings, with a crunchy skin and juicy interior.
During his time in Philadelphia, Arena became a cheesesteak connoisseur, and he let us in on his secret. He starts with a high-quality ribeye, slices it very thin, and then puts it on the grill and mixes it with the provolone cheese to make the meat dense and sticky. As a result, the meat literally melts in your mouth. Arena tops the creation with a generous helping of sweet caramelized onions.
We finished our main course with a sampling of the Ahi Tuna salad, made with sushi-grade fish from Thailand and seared to perfection. It may be a deli, but Michael’s serves a mean seared fish.
Lastly, we enjoyed a hot matzo ball soup, made with the best chicken broth we’ve tried in Middletown and the only matzo balls outside of Usdan that we’ve found in the area.
As previously mentioned, many of these dishes were accompanied by Arena’s homemade dressings. Favorites included a sweet honey mustard, bleu cheese, soy ginger, the balsamic, Caesar, and the ranch. Thoroughly enjoying the dense, smooth textures and flavorful concoctions, we found ourselves literally taking a spoon to each of the dressings that we had ordered on the side.
Just in case we were not completely stuffed, Arena brought out homemade pecan pie, as well as chocolate chip, sugar, and oatmeal raisin cookies. The pecan pie had a wonderfully thick interior, a far cry from the goopy varieties often served at other restaurants.
But what really brought it home for us were the cookies. Served warm, these inch-and-a-half thick cookies are second to none. The sugar cookie was a particular favorite, with a balanced sweet flavor highlighted by especially buttery notes.
Despite the amazing food, we’d say that the thing that most distinguishes Michael’s Deli is its focus on the customers.
“I’m willing to do anything to make the customers flock [here],” Arena told us.
Arena is especially eager for the Wesleyan community to start coming down to the deli. Its Broad Street location is convenient for a quick lunch between classes, and it also offers a 10-percent discount to Wesleyan students. If you don’t feel like making the short walk, they also deliver. All in all, we would highly recommend Michael’s Deli for a gourmet deli meal, at a very fair price.