what to eat

The Story Behind Brooklyn’s Best Italian Sub

At New Sunset Deli, the signature sandwich is both lunch and a tribute.

Photo: Hugo Yu
Photo: Hugo Yu
Photo: Hugo Yu

When Edwin Onofre gets an order for Italian Combo, he tunes out everything else. He asks the usual questions — “salt, pepper, oil, and vinegar?” “Mayo?” — and then he gets to work … Just enough mayo. Oil and vinegar are applied with a drizzle, not a downpour. On the slicer, everything is shaved super thin: cappy-style ham, salami, provolone, a final layer of hot capicola. Roasted red peppers, a few slices of tomato, and some shredded lettuce. There is maybe too much meat, but that’s part of the appeal. A sandwich like this is supposed to be a little too heavy.

New Sunset Deli appears to be as inconspicuous and ordinary-looking as any other corner store. “It’s just a regular bodega,” Court Street Grocers co-owner Eric Finkelstein says. “But they make these painstakingly built sandwiches.” One of those sandwiches is this Italian combo — the best I’ve ever found at a bodega counter.

The thing is, the ingredients aren’t anything to write home about. The meat is Boar’s Head, the pale tomato commodity. The iceberg lettuce all crunch, no flavor, and the crusty bread — from Port Chester’s J.J. Cassone — is more industrial than artisanal, just as it should be. “When people come in, we make a sandwich, and we’re only focused on that one sandwich,” says Onofre, a co-owner of the deli. It’s the approach that everyone working at New Sunset learned from a man named Kevin Lee.

Lee and his wife, Anne, ran a store called Sunset Park Deli. They were Sunset Park Famous. Their deli was known for its daily lines out the door, full of firemen, policemen, and others. Onofre started working there in 2007. The others, including his brothers Caesar and Javier, worked there as well.

Lee was considered the best deli man around. When he died of COVID in May, 2020, the Brooklyn Reporter ran an obituary filled with remembrances. One former employee said the Lees looked after him when he was in his teens, encouraging him to go to school when he “was involved in gang activity.” They were known to feed the homeless and to send food to christenings, funerals, block parties. Onofre says that Lee taught him to make sandwiches and also how to treat people, both customers and employees: “He was like my grandpa, my dad.”

Sunset Park Deli never reopened. Onofre and everyone else had lost a friend and were out of work. Eventually, they pooled their resources to open their own place. They had tried to rent the space that was home to Sunset Park Deli, but the landlord wasn’t interested. They wanted to open where the Lees had been, to keep it going, but had to settle on a new location around the corner. It has its benefits: It’s right across from the park, one of the nicest places in New York during sunset, and on busy Fifth Avenue. Not everyone knows they’re here, though. Onofre estimates that only 30 to 40 percent of the old customers have found them. “There are people who are just starting to come,” he says. “Some people think, Oh, it’s not the same, so they don’t give it a chance.”

One afternoon, three guys were waiting for sandwiches, discussing Staten Island real estate and whether or not you’re still allowed to declaw cats. (You’re not.) Each knew exactly what he wanted. Hot peppers on the New Yorker. Balsamic for the Italian. “There he is!” one bellowed as Caesar walked in. Fist bumps.  “Is that real gold?” another joked when he saw Caesar’s ring.

On top of the deli case, in front of the top jar, and above the Boar’s Head sticker, there’s a framed photo of Lee, visible to every customer placing an order. Lee is wearing his deli hat and orange apron, standing behind the old place’s deli case. “I want Kevin’s legacy to live on, even though he’s not here,” Onofre says. “And I want people to know we’re Kevin’s workers — we know what we’re doing.”

Thin layers that make up a thick sandwich. Photo: Hugo Yu
Brooklyn’s Best Italian Sub Is Both Lunch and a Tribute