Welcome to the inaugural edition of Eating with Esquire. Each Wednesday, I am going to recap my visit to a local place. I am an attorney, not a restaurant critic, so don’t expect any fancy reviews. I’m just a guy who loves to go out to eat and wants to share my experiences with other folks who do too. Each week, I will follow a similar format where I give you a snapshot of each place and then I will break down the DEATS: Drink, Edibles, Atmosphere, Transportation, and Service.
Specialty: Joey Tribbiani’s favorite food (if you don’t understand that reference, please go here)
My good buddy is from Philly and he kept telling me that Richmond’s food scene is so good, but the hole in the market is that you just can’t get a good hoagie here. (*Editor’s Note: much like you can immediately tell someone is from the Midwest because they call a soda a pop, you can instantly tell someone is from the Iladel when they call a sub/sandwich a hoagie). I figured there had to be a place in RVA that was known for their sandwiches and after checking around on the internet and asking a few people, Chiocca’s is the name that kept popping up. My Pops and I eat lunch together fairly regularly on Fridays so when he called to ask where we were going to go, Chiocca’s was the choice. And as soon as we walked in, I knew I was going to like it. Here are the DEATS from our visit.
Drink: These are some things you need to know about me right off the bat because it will become a recurring theme on these posts, a set of guidelines of sorts for the drink section: (1) Dr. Pepper is the greatest beverage ever concocted. I, like the great Forrest Gump before me, would have no problem drinking me about 15 Dr. Peppers in one sitting. It should be mandatory on every soda fountain around the world! If you don’t have Dr. Pepper, you must at least offer Mr. Pibb as an alternative. If neither of these is available, you have failed my soda drinking palate. Only one way to come back from that epic failure and that’s by telling me, “We don’t have Dr. Pepper or Mr. Pibb, but we do have bottled root beer or Mexican coke (give me all the cane sugar!!) (also, see here.)”; and (2) part of the appeal about going out is getting something new, something you don’t get all the time. When I go to a restaurant, I want to drink local, meaning I want to drink beer brewed in the same city or town where I am eating. We live in Richmond, where the craft beer scene has exploded. There are so many great local beers to stock your taps with – if you offer beer, make sure and have a few on your roster. Chiocca’s went one for two, as they offer Mr. Pibb, but don’t offer much by the way of local beer. They may have had some Legend on tap, but that was about the extent of it. And drinking Legend in Richmond instead of COTU or Hardywood is kind of like drinking Budweiser in St. Louis instead of Schlafly. However, they do get points for selling beer. You always get points for having beer.
Edibles: This is the real star of the show. You’re not going to Chiocca’s for their beverage selection, you’re going there for a kick-ass sandwich. Well, you will not be disappointed because that is exactly what you are going to get. I’d be remiss if I did not talk about the Dagwood because that is their flagship, and for good reason. It’s piled high with turkey, roast beef, salami, and swiss and comes topped with Thousand Island, dijon, and pickles, all on rye. It checks all the boxes, from seeing a few of them served to folks around us, it looked awesome. I went with The Lucca, which has salami, prosciutto, provolone, sweet hot peppers, and Italian dressing. Now, another thing you must know about me is that sweet hot pepppers are a necessity on my ideal sandwich. You get a little crunch, a touch of sweetness, and a pop of heat to complement all the meat and cheese – mmm, fugghedaboutit. After I write this, I may have to go back down there just to get another one.
Atmosphere: My great-grandmother, Mom Bernice (pronounced BUR-niss), was, shall we say, frugal. She was tight. If we went over to her house as kids, she would tear a stick of gum in half, and then tear that half in half, and that was the amount of gum you had to chew. And we’re not talking these fancy, new-fangled gums like Trident Ice and Wintergreen where the flavor can last for like 20 minutes; I’m talking old-school, Wrigley’s Doublemint in the green packaging – two chews and all the flavor was gone. As you can imagine, for Mom Bernice, going out to eat was a luxury. If she went out to eat, it had to be some place special. Some place, as she would say, that had “atmosphere”. (It should be noted that she most famously described Lowery’s Restaurant in Tappahannock as having “atmosphere” so take that for what it’s worth). I tell you all that to tell you this – this penchant must be genetic, because so much of my opinion on an establishment is shaped by its “atmosphere”. As such, this will be a critical category during the weekly reviews.
Chiocca’s checks all my atmosphere boxes. You enter at street level and descend a few steps into the deli, a basement of all things sandwich heaven. It’s dark, it looks dated, and it smells like you just fell into meat and cheese nirvana. There are a smattering of tables and high-backed booths running the length of the wall. In my mind’s eye, when a politician is cutting a crooked deal with some shadowy figure while they both smoke cigars, the booths at Chiocca’s serve as the setting. In so many ways, it’s like you’re in your uncle’s basement where he built the bar himself and adorned the walls with all of his masculine treasures that his wife would never dare let him put in the formal part of the house – baseball cards, magazine covers, old beer and soda cans, tin signs advertising nickel Cokes, and memorabilia from every one of his favorite sports teams – the place he goes after a 50-hour work week at the docks and just needs to pop a top on a cold beer and light up a stogie. Atmosphere? In leaps and bounds!
Transportation: A couple more things that you will learn to understand about me as these reviews go on: (1) one of my biggest pet peeves on the planet when I go somewhere for food, libation, or entertainment is the lack of readily available parking. Just drives me nuts; and (2) I am all about hole-in-the wall places (they always have atmosphere!), but the closer you are to a main thoroughfare or interstate, and the less turns I have to take to find you, the better. That’s probably just me being lazy, but it is what it is. Chiocca’s is middle of the road on these things. There is no dedicated parking lot, which means you have to park on the street. However, that part of Belmont isn’t exactly popping with traffic, so we were able to park directly across the street from the deli when we pulled up. We did eat a later lunch, around 1:15, so I would be interested to see how that differs during the lunch rush. Location-wise, it sits right in the heart of the Museum District, so you can’t just casually pop off of 64 or 195 and be there, but it’s not a pain to get there. We hopped off at the Boulevard exit and rode that down to Kensington, took a Roger Podacter (a right turn; I realize most people just stop with Roger, but I cannot say Roger and not say Roger Podactor. If you’re unfamiliar with Roger Podactor, just know I am so disappointed in you), then a quick Luigi onto Belmont and we were there.
Service: I waited tables all through college so I am abundantly fair when it comes to evaluating service, and probably more lenient than most. I also prefer a certain type of server. We don’t need to be buddy-buddy or learn each other’s life stories. So long as my drink cup isn’t empty and my food arrives in a reasonable amount of time, you are getting 20% from me. In that light, Chiocca’s gets two thumbs up from me. My drink was never empty, the food arrived appropriately, and in the interim, my Pops and I were free to talk and enjoy each other’s company without interruption.
Final Verdict: If you’ve got a hankering for a sandwich, Chiocca’s is your place. Bearded Barrister approved.