Some time several decades ago Milanno Ukehaxhaj left Kosovo at an opportune time on his way to America and making me a sandwich. That is skipping over a lot, but we'll get to the details in later paragraphs, and anyway it was a very good sandwich. This sandwich was not made when I visited the deli earlier this month with his wife and business partner Diana feeding me information as well as chicken parmigiana, it was made during my lunch break at a summer job I held in 2000, which is when I fell in love with Gaetano's.
Gaetano's Arthur Avenue Style Deli was located at the time on a corner of Main Street and Ferry Boulevard in Stratford not far from where the Two Roads brewery now sits. [And heads up: if you hit the tasting room at Two Roads early enough several days a week, you can score a pre-made Gaetano's sandwich for $5.]
They expanded from that one location to their current home base on Barnum Ave. in Stratford, Elm Street Plaza in Monroe, and most recently, on the Post Road in Westport, effectively triangulating Fairfield County.
Upon coming to America, Milanno settled in the Bronx and got a job in a deli on Arthur Ave., where he had an on the spot master class on Italian-American deli meat, cheese, and bread.
"I met every star in New York there," he said. "Pacino, DeNiro, mayor Dinkins, the Yankees..."
"He had a date with Jennifer Aniston, had no idea who she was," added Diana.
More importantly, it was there that he also met Gaetano Catalano. After a few years the two had an idea to open their own spot. A partnership was formed, and Diana knew a place in Stratford.
Gaetano's in Monroe is more focused on the prepared foods, plus the catering side of the business, according to Diana. Westport and Stratford are more traditional delis. Enter the Stratford location and the deli cooler facing you is a color garden of stuffed and roasted peppers, salads, lasagna, mushrooms, and gnocci. Uncooked fresh pasta fills a cooler to your left, and the right wall is an Italian grocery of dried Garofalo pasta, jarred pickles, and sweets.
Whole pepperonis, the kind that get used, hang over the deli counter, and hard cheeses share space behind the glass with whole stromboli. The bread comes in daily from Addeo's Bakery in the Bronx, and whatever's not Boar's Head comes in regularly through Napoli importers.
"We go through 30 whole Parmigiano Reggiano's a week," said Milanno.
Cuts of cured meats and hunks of cheese are at hand to sample as you look at the menu of sandwich suggestions with names like Bravo Milano (breseola, fresh mozzarella, and roasted peppers), the Goodfella (hot cappicola, sharp provolone, broccoli rabe, and roasted peppers), the Bait&Tackle (prosciuttini, oldani salami, sharp provolone, and portabella mushroom, named for the shop a block away from the old location).
A favorite of mine is the Mecoman: sweet sopressata, ham cappicola, pepperoni, smoked mozzarella, sun dried
tomatoes, rosted peppers, portabella mushrooms, and balsamic vinegar. Inside the crusty, chewy bread, the ingredients come together to harmonize meat, heat, and a blend of sweetness from the balsamic and roasted peppers, and the tangy umami of marinated mushrooms and sun dried tomatoes.
The mozzarella is made in the deli kitchen, where the staff also hand make the chicken cutlets and breaded eggplant for the sandwich parmigianas, along with all the soups, cold prepared food, and hot food for the steam tables.
The food has become locally famous - members of Obama's Secret Service detail drove to Gaetano's to pick up food when the president was speaking in Bridgeport a few years back - but Milanno thinks it's only half of why people love Gaetano's
"When I was in the Bronx I learned it's about talking to people, it's service that's so important. Especially in Stratford, we're loud, we make a point to look at you and say hi to everyone and engage with them," he gestured to the marble deli counter. "We face you when we make the sandwiches. You make good food and you meet good people."
There's a fervor when he speaks about this last part.
"Every day I'm excited here. I love it, I'm like a volcano," he says in an unplaceable accent you might otherwise think is Italian in the setting. "I'm blessed. I'm so blessed."
Gaetano's is available eat-in, takeout, or catering; gaetanosdelis.com.
203 955 1852
203 377 8860
292 Elm St. Plaza, Monroe
203 268 6982