Meet Mistretta's

Bill Clancy is enjoying his lunch.

At one o’clock on a sunny afternoon, Clancy is perched on a wooden stool behind the front counter at Mistretta’s Italian Market, the sole Italian deli in Athens, OH. Chatting with other employees, he happily noshes his freshly prepared sandwich and potato chips. As the owner of his work place, he doesn’t have to worry about eating on the job. So, when he eases off his stool to discuss why a New Jersey salesman and his wife moved to South Eastern Ohio to open a small Italian deli, he made sure to bring his sandwich with him.

Bill is wearing a blue, checkered shirt, short khakis, and socks that reach up to his shins from black sneakers. He has a soothing smile and gray hair that is tightly pulled back into a low ponytail. Between bites of his meaty panini and sips from an Orangina out of the eateries’ beverage case, Clancy coolly explains his and his wife Chloe’s decision to season Appalachia with a taste of Italian: empty nest syndrome.

Originating from Northern New Jersey, Bill worked as a salesman who took the hour and a half train ride into Manhattan every morning and Chloe was a stay at home mom. Their daughter attended Ohio University in the late 90s and the couple visited her often. During their visits, they were surprised by the lack of Italian food.
“We noticed that there were no Italian restaurants here, and back in New Jersey every town has a place like ours,” said Clancy, sitting in a large furnished room below the store.

After graduating in 2000, their daughter permanently moved to the college town. So, the pair also relocated to Athens and rented out the building that is now Mistretta’s, turning it into an all-things Italian market. “By happenstance, we opened up on graduation day of 2000, so we got mobbed our very first day in business, which was cool,” reminisces Bill. At the time, the store had shelving that covered the walls, holding pastas and sauces, and offered sandwiches, hot dinners, beer and Italian wine.

Opening the restaurant spurred a lifestyle that is “radically different” from what they were used to. While Bill doesn’t miss the long commute to work, he has extremely different feelings about his wife’s having to work. “I love the independence of owning my own business, but my wife is working too hard so I don’t like that part,” he adds with a poignant frown.

Chloe is now the main cook for Mistretta’s, as well as the cultural tie (Bill is not Italian; “Mistretta” is Chloe’s maiden name). One look at the menu and it is clear what she is working so hard on. All of the dinners and sandwiches are homemade, a distinction from the pre-packaged foods that dominate the other restaurants in town. “We get our bread from a food service, but everything else is made from scratch,” says Bill.
Each sandwich comes in three different sizes—small, medium and large—is moderately priced, and equally mouthwatering.

The menu lists more than 14 paninis, such as the Tuscan Grilled Cheese Panini, consisting of smoked mozzarella, spinach, fresh tomato, and pesto on sliced ciabatta bread, and the SPO (Bill’s favorite), made up of sausage, pepper, onion, and a thin slice of mozzarella cheese. Customers are also given the option to choose from the seven offered salads or opt for a filling soup. Top it all off with a Ghirardelli fudge brownie, cookie or lemon bar, for a full, yet inexpensive, meal.

Watching Bill eat his lunch caused extreme sandwich envy. Looking over the menu, I ordered a number 1, the Classic Italian. This popular panini consists of smoked ham, salty Genoa salami, sharp mozzarella, onions, tomatoes, and the sweet oil and vinegar mix that covers nearly every sandwich on the menu. The bread was just crisp enough, the meat and cheese was liberally applied, the veggies fresh, and all was topped off with just the right amount of oil and vinegar. Sandwiches are served in aluminum foil, making it easy to eat on the go or wrap up to save for later.

A small sandwich—note that in this eatery, “small” is definitely an American, rather than Italian, measurement—with a bag of chips and a soda will hardly hurt a wallet, costing a mere $4.95. The prices have barely changed in the 10 years that it has been open; there was a slight increase in sandwich costs, an adjustment that did not spread to the salad and dinner menu.

With daily specials, frequenters and employees, such as Lauren Vonville who has worked for the deli for nearly a year, have trouble getting bored with the dinner menu. Standard menu items here are not lackluster. Lauren’s favorite is the Chicken Scarpariello, which is served every Tuesday night. The dish consists of baked garlic chicken, sausage, and roasted red peppers, all deliciously placed on top of linguini noodles.

Tonight’s special is Eggplant Parmesan. Served on a white plate, the breaded pieces of eggplant are layered with ricotta and mozzarella cheese, steamy sauce and accompanied by lightly sprinkled Parmesan cheese. A single serving is only $6.95 and for $9.90 one can upgrade to the dinner combo, which adds a well-sized house salad and slice of bread.

But the menu is not Mistretta’s only distinguishing factor. The newly redone façade of Mistretta’s Italian Market resembles the humble design of many other small town eateries in South Eastern Ohio. Unlike other stores, however, Mistretta’s bright white storefront is flared with stripes of red, and the parking stops are painted like the Italian flag. The small interior is filled with a few sets of matching, delicate cast-iron chairs and larger tiled tables. The quaint deli is decorated in deep neutral browns with a tile floor. Faux grape vines stretching under the shelves lining the top of the walls hold scattered small bowls, jugs and glasses and paintings from one of the workers, Tracy Duncan, who is also a local artist, cover the walls.

The wall facing the door is lined with glass door freezers that are filled with a variety of American and Italian sodas, beer, and water. To the left is a deli counter, holding a variety of pasta salads, a prepared example of the daily special, and several meats waiting to become one of the sandwiches that is written in dry-erase on the board hanging from the ceiling. Large pots and pans, jars of seasoning, and tomato cans sit behind the counter, above the tables on which employees prepare sandwiches. Near the door is a desk where Bill sits, greeting customers as they walk inside. The décor may differ from surrounding businesses, but the comfortable and inviting atmosphere matches Athens’ small town charm.

When the weather is nice, patrons are encouraged to enjoy their food on the back patio, which on clear days catches a light breeze and is highlighted by the sun. On hotter days, sandwich-eaters looking for a cooler spot can be found sitting at the shaded tables sitting outside the front of the store. Off of the patio is a set of stairs that leads to the basement of the shop, which is used for catering events. This large space can be accessed through wide, glass-paneled doors, and is similarly decorated to the room upstairs. Circle tables and wooden chairs are evenly placed throughout the entire area, while square tables sit in the back to hold food during events.

Despite their profitable opening those ten years ago, Bill hopes that business will soon pick up. To increase awareness about their studio-sized deli, they have put up a web site with pictures of the newly-painted façade and freshly-prepared meals. The menu and deli specials are also online. “I tell people if we could send the smell across the Internet we would do that as well,” Bill joked as he told of the sites expansion.

 And although some of the town has not yet fully appreciated Mistretta’s European-in-America charm, it is a must-stop for those visiting the Athens area. It is only a mile from the many other restaurants located uptown, and is easy to find. And if you’d prefer to stay in your hotel after a day of hiking through Athens’ hilly terrain, Mistretta’s will deliver for a small fee.

“If there’s anything I’d like people to know is that the food really is good,” said Bill, eating the final bit of his sandwich. “But I’m just an owner saying that his food his good.”