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COUNTER INTELLIGENCE

Sub Standard

July 29, 1993|JONATHAN GOLD

Bay Cities Importing is a bustling Italian deli near downtown Santa Monica, a supermarket-size delicatessen that slung fresh pasta and roasted peppers probably 30 years before the average Santa Monican could tell you the difference between a porcini and a sun-dried tomato. There were a zillion kinds of extra-virgin olive oil, and there used to be three kinds of eggplant caponata . (Now there's only one kind of eggplant caponata , and they're often out of that.) If you grew up in the area, Bay Cities was where your parents shopped for manicotti shells and provolone, for olive salad and the super-peppery Toscano salame, but it was mostly where you hoped they'd pick up a few subs on their way home from work. When you lived on the Westside, a Bay Cities godmother sandwich was as good as things got.

Everybody's got a personal pantheon of Italian sandwiches: the overstuffed heroes at Manganaro's on Ninth Avenue in Manhattan; a Trastevere sandwich of drippy bufala mozzarella and thin, gamy slices of Friulian prosciutto tucked into hot focaccia bread and washed down with thin, tart Refosco wine; a simple train-station lunch of roast pork and a slab of that peculiar saltless Tuscan bread that tastes like fresh cheese . . . even the Gallo salame and cheese on Langendorf that you ate near a lake as a kid.

New Orleans is a good city for Italianesque sandwiches: muffalettas from the Central Grocery, heavy with cold cuts and garlicky olive salad; the juicy po' boys from Mother's on Poydras; crunchy, briny, oyster loaves from Acme or Casamento's that don't taste all that Italian.

Perhaps you have gotten lost in a residential neighborhood in Milan, picking your way toward the famous sandwich shop called Bar Quadronno. Decked out with bristly animal heads and frequented by the kind of scooter kids who wear Armani jackets, Bar Quadronno serves as many flavors of panini as Baskin-Robbins does ice cream, and the specialty is a sandwich of bresaola and cured tuna roe that oozes sweetened mayonnaise, the richness and intensity of flavor almost perfectly offset by the weightless crackle of the bread.

Bay Cities is no Bar Quadronno--it's probably not even up there with Manganaro's--but at lunchtime the crowd around the deli counter is four deep, the smell of garlic is maddening, and people jostle hard in their haste to take a number from the machine. The countermen spend most of their time huddled over the long sandwich-making table, huddled over their heroes as seriously as white-coated surgeons over a kidney transplant.

Bay Cities makes a decent turkey sandwich, a loud, greasy meatball sandwich and a very respectable hero with Parma prosciutto, ripe tomatoes and cheese, but the sandwich of choice here is a monster called the godmother, which includes a slice of every Italian cold cut you've ever head of, and a couple you might not: salame, mortadella, prosciutto, cappicola, ham, provolone cheese, on a foot-long, properly chewy Italian loaf.

Fully dressed, the godmother includes lettuce, tomato, mayonnaise, mustard and a few squirts from unmarked squeeze bottles that probably add up to a garlicky vinaigrette. Fully dressed, a godmother feeds a couple of people at least, and the guys behind the counter will look at you quizzically if they suspect you're planning to eat a large godmother yourself. When you eat a godmother, even a half-godmother, it is best to roll your sleeves up to the elbows.

Of course, for some people, even a fully dressed sandwich is sometimes not enough. My mother, for one, was dismayed when the countermen would no longer sell her a "built" godmother, one with double the usual amount of meat and cheese.

"Lady," says the guy behind the counter, "we can't make that sandwich for you . . . we'd have to charge you $10 or more."

"I know what it costs," my mother says.

"I still can't do it for you. Here . . . why don't you let me make you two."

* Bay Cities Importing 1517 Lincoln Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 395-8279. Open Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m. to 7 p.m., Sunday 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Lot parking. Takeout. Beer, wine and liquor for takeout only. MasterCard, Visa and ATM cards accepted. Lunch for two, food only, $6-$9.

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