That weekend bucket-list flight to New Orleans for a muffuletta fix at the famed Central Grocery is on hold indefinitely. An alternative: Sebastiano’s, a self-described Sicilian-inspired deli “through a Pacific Northwest lens,” which opened in the Montavilla neighborhood on June 2, serving muffulettas with hand-stretched mozzarella on house-made fennel seed bread as well as filled-to-order cannoli, Sicilian cookies, cold cuts, antipasti, and Sicilian wine.
Founders Elise and Daniel Gold are obsessed with handcrafted ingredients, small-scale local farms, and healthy eating. It should come as no surprise, then, that the married couple met at the Culinary Institute of America in Napa before moving to Portland in 2009 and working in various food-related industries. The inspiration for Sebastiano’s, named after Elise’s great-grandfather Sebastiano and the couple’s son Sebastian, came from a trip to Sicily and a desire to learn more about Elise’s maternal ancestral roots.
“We kind of just fell in love with the climate, the people, the food traditions, the whole gamut,” Daniel recalls. But Sebastiano’s is also inspired by Elise’s Sicilian-American household growing up in New Jersey, where the women in her family cooked elaborate meals and baked Sicilian treats.
“We’re always walking that line a little bit, because there are a lot of those nostalgic Italian-American things that aren’t really Sicilian,” Elise says. Still, the couple wanted to represent those flavors, too. Some of their best customers are East Coast transplants, dying for a good Italian deli like the ones back home. “[They’re] coming out of the woodwork,” notes Daniel.
The muffuletta sandwich is a distinctly New Orleans creation, though the bread, a traditional sesame seed round, is native to Sicily. Some food lorists trace the original muffuletta to Nola’s Central Grocery in 1906, born as a handy, portable lunch for Italian laborers. At Sebastiano’s, the muffuletta gets a Pacific Northwest twist with Olympia Provisions mortadella, Sweetheart Ham, and Creminelli salami. Accompanying the cured meats are hand-stretched mozzarella, Provolone, and olive salad, all stacked on house-baked fennel-seed muffuletta bread. There’s also a vegetarian version featuring grilled marinated eggplant, mozzarella, salad greens, and Calabrian chile oil.
Originally, the plan was to serve muffulettas, pizza, and house-made pasta. But the pandemic hit weeks before a planned opening date in April, forcing the Golds to rethink what models would work in the new world. “The idea of hand-making a sandwich for every person who comes in the door is not probably realistic,” says Daniel. But the muffuletta turned out to be perfect for a pandemic-era grab-and-go meal. With a muffuletta, adds Daniel, “you can bake the bread yourselves, you can make the sandwich in a round, and essentially portion it into eight pieces.”
Just as newsworthy are the cannoli, which are made with house-fried cannoli shells and garnished with their own candied orange zest and Italian chocolate chips. The robust dessert menu also includes petite Sicilian cookies—with gluten-free and vegan olive oil options on offer—as well as olive oil cake, panna cotta with summer berry coulis, and tiny almond tarts topped with Oregon berries.
To round out your meal, choose from a couple of salads like radicchio Caesar with pecorino or fennel with blood orange, plus fresh-baked focaccia sold by the quarter slab. Customers can also stock up on Elise’s hand-pulled fresh mozzarella in brine, along with a selection of imported Italian cheeses like Parmigiano Reggiano and Caciocavallo Siciliano. Sliced deli meats from Olympia Provisions are also available, along with Sicilian green olives. You can also avoid a trip to the grocery store with pantry staples like polenta, farro, dry pasta, and coffee beans. The beverage menu is devoted to a curated list of Sicilian wines by the bottle, as well as spritz kits that would make for a pleasant afternoon aperitivo on your patio along with some sliced meat and cheese. It’s an impressively well-rounded menu for a small shop whose kitchen consists of just a slicer, an oven, and a single induction burner.
For now, the couple’s dream of offering dine-in pizza and pasta at Sebastiano’s is on hold. The best way to get your hands on a muffuletta, cannoli, or slice of olive oil cake is to preorder via Sebastiano’s online ordering platform for contactless, curbside pickup. Orders should be ready within 15 minutes, according to the Golds. The newly opened outdoor patio is also available—by reservation only—for your pandemic pod to enjoy a taste of Sicily, New Jersey, New Orleans, and the Pacific Northwest in the summer sun.
Sebastiano’s, 411 SE 81st Ave, open 11 a.m.–3 p.m. Wed–Sat, sebastianospdx.com