How Uncle Paulie from Queens Won Over L.A. with Italian-American Deli Sandwiches
The first thing you should probably know about Paul James, proprietor of the Uncle Paulie’s deli in Los Angeles, is that he doesn’t look like what you might expect. So when you roll into the Italian-American deli and want to meet the guy known as Uncle Paulie, you could be surprised to discover that he’s a 34 year old with a baby face that makes him seem even younger.
“A lot of people look at me and say, ‘You’re not my uncle,’” James says.
James got the nickname Uncle Paulie back when he was a kid in Flushing, Queens. It was just one of those nicknames you got in the neighborhood. Anyway, it was funny back then to call the guy who looked really young "Uncle Paulie." And it’s still amusing today.
The second thing you should know about Paul James is related to the first thing. Because he grew up in Flushing, Queens, his N.Y.C.-inspired Italian-American deli is the work of a true New Yorker who knows what a place like this should be.
“This was a passion play for both of us,” says James, who opened Uncle Paulie’s with a longtime friend from New York, shoe designer/entrepreneur Jon Buscemi. “We grew up on the East Coast, going to get cold cuts on Sunday, going to the beach. Who doesn’t love an Italian-American deli? It was something we grew up on, going with your boys to have a sandwich, eating it on the hood of your car, that kind of thing.”
James, who was a bartender and restaurant manager in New York, moved to L.A. about three years ago. One day, he was eating a sandwich with Buscemi and the friends realized that they should start their own deli with exactly the food they wanted to eat.
“I was at a crossroads, and we just had the idea,” James says. “It felt like it was time.”
“This was a necessity play,” Buscemi says.
L.A., despite its status as the country’s most exciting food city, doesn’t have many formidable Italian-American delis. Santa Monica’s Bay Cities and Culver City’s Sorrento have the Westside covered, and there’s Domingo’s in Encino and Claro’s in the San Gabriel Valley. But James and Buscemi realized there was an opportunity to serve quality N.Y.-style sandwiches in the middle of L.A., so they opened Uncle Paulie’s on Beverly Boulevard near West Hollywood last summer.
Uncle Paulie’s serves a killer Italian combo, loaded with cold cuts, aged provolone, roasted peppers and Italian dressing. It’s a sandwich that’s marvelously engineered, with the whole being more than the sum of its parts. The Italian combo is substantial but not overwhelming: It’s meaty and a little spicy and totally balanced, held together nicely by bread that has a good chew. Another Uncle Paulie’s crowd-pleaser is the roast beef sandwich with London broil, mozzarella, spicy giardiniera, lettuce and onion. A prosciutto di Parma sandwich with arugula is a classic done well, and there’s an artichoke caprese sandwich, an eggplant caponata sandwich and a tuna sandwich for those looking to avoid meat. (We are near West Hollywood, after all.) A tangy potato salad pairs well with everything.
Uncle Paulie’s is true to the spirit of New York, but its location in L.A. allows it to elevate Italian-American deli food in ways you simply can’t do in Queens. Chef Austin Itri (formerly at Spago) goes to the Santa Monica and Hollywood farmers markets for produce every week. So this is an Italian-American deli with heirloom tomatoes and blood oranges in a display case. Uncle Paulie’s is also (probably) the first deli that’s ever given us gorgeous watermelon radishes in a chopped salad.
Uncle Paulie’s tries harder than a lot of other delis. Frank Pinello of Best Pizza in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, worked with Itri to develop the menu. Sandwiches are made on bread from Normandie Bakery chef Josette LeBlond. Instead of relying on Boar’s Head products like so many places on both coasts, Uncle Paulie’s gets meats from California suppliers like Burbank’s RC Provisions and San Francisco’s Molinari & Son’s.
Uncle Paulie’s makes its own mozzarella every day. On weekends, there’s a limited supply of meatball parm sandwiches featuring housemade meatballs. The deli also makes its own sweets, including cookies, muffins and Rice Krispie treats. Come for breakfast, and there’s a classic bacon, egg and cheese on a roll as well as a cacio y pepe egg sandwich and a spicy Italian egg sandwich inspired by amatriciana. James wants to cure his own meats and make his own pickles in the near future.
Uncle Paulie’s, as James says, is “a nostalgia play.” It also works well as a clubhouse for New York transplants. It’s a place where former New Yorkers can come in and talk to other former New Yorkers about things like how the Sichuan food is better in Flushing than it is in L.A., and why jarred Rao’s marinara is superior to a lot of the red sauce in L.A. restaurants, and how difficult it can be to get a decent slice of pizza in L.A. Uncle Paulie’s can’t solve all the food problems of all the New York transplants who live in L.A., but it’s got you sorted if you want a great sandwich.
Uncle Paulie’s, 8369 Beverly Blvd., 323-746-554