America's great delis: Zingerman's in Ann Arbor, Mich., Katzinger's in Columbus, Ohio, Corti Brothers in Sacramento, Calif., and Katz's and Carnegie in New York. What makes them the subject of epic poems and the rationale for thousand-mile road trips? It's the ingredients, sure, but more importantly, it's the people. Like a stage play, a great deli has a million moving parts that need the oversight of clear-eyed pros who never bobble when the curtain goes up. Tampa now has a road trip-worthy deli. Unsurprisingly, Datz Delicatessen's strength lies in its staff, a cast of diehard deli pros and those (as one server said) "just obsessed with sandwiches."
Cast (in order of appearance)
Roger Perry Founder, owner and visionary of Datz Delicatessen. He sold 31 pet superstores to Petsmart in 1994 and retired, only to have a second career in raising Derby-worthy thoroughbreds in Ocala, only to chuck it all to open Datz in January.
Suzanne Perry Co-owner and spouse to Roger, former philanthropist and socialite in Ocala, current philanthropist and socialite in Tampa.
Patti Kuhl A certified sommelier who handpicked all the globe-trotting wines for Datz, which are, incredibly, sold at retail prices (no markup, no corkage fee).
Jon "Cheddar" Carron Cheesemonger. They say you can blindfold him, put six cheeses in front of him and he can tell you what they are.
Esteban Sainz First in his class at Johnson & Wales, he's a high-end chef who, along with five other fine-dining veterans, has settled into the kitchen at Datz.
Jason Laukhuf Former executive pastry chef at Bern's, he now comes into Datz on weekends to make tarts and cakes (carrot cake to die for).
John "Sparky" Salas Responsible for keeping up with Datz's funky, pierced-and-tatted service staff.
An ugly stretch of MacDill, at dusk. A neon Datz sign beckons coyly, the smell of brisket more of a siren's call. Inside, you don't know where to look. Over to the left where an acoustic guitarist is launching into a set (hey, that guy's pretty good)? Or upward to the huge ceiling and brick walls lined with dark wooden shelves crammed with every imaginable pasta sauce, fancy chocolate, herb and gourmet vinegar? No, it's at the hostess in the natty baseball cap and braids, with a quick glance over to the cheese counter and then back at the beer cooler by the front door (note to self: Delirium Nocturnum big bottle for a very fair $8.99, Old Rasputin Russian Imperial Stout for $2.99).
We sit down and riffle through the numerous pages of multiple menus. Yeesh, is there going to be a test? Settling on a Reuben ($10.95 big, $12.95 obscene) and an Officer's Club ($10.95, $12.50) and ridiculously delicious wine and beer (Chimay triple, French Pink Criquet rose), it's easy to be mesmerized by the bustle: a woman discussing the 150 kinds of cheese while a kid next to her ogles the dessert case, her tiny hands pressed against the glass; servers zooming; folks heading upstairs to the second-floor loft.
Double dilemma: how to fit the roasted turkey breast, honey ham, Nueske's bacon, Vermont white cheddar, romaine, tomato and grilled whole wheat in mouth without unhinging jaw; how to stop eating the housemade chips (deeply russet, perfectly salted, greaseless, with a drizzle of some kind of aioli) and good-as-Carnegie-Deli half sour pickle.
A week later, Saturday morning, we pull up chairs on the patio, order gargantuan lattes ($2.95-$3.75) and orange juices ($1.25) and await huge plates of eggy things. There's the gorgeous Billy Benedict (the usual suspects but with Arkansas peppered ham and Gruyere; $10.95) and a raft of big-as-your-head three-egg omelets, all packed with wholesome, fresh veggies and top-notch meats. Still, the dreamiest picks were pancakes ($9.95), either the multigrain with berries or the lemon-scented blueberry. We sit, sated, and whisper, "Datz amazing."
(Standing ovation, roses thrown, cast bows deeply.)
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining. Reiley dines anonymously and unannounced. The Times pays all expenses. Advertising has nothing to do with selection for review or the assessment.