Pepe Sisters Italian American Deli is a cute, welcoming neighborhood place.
There is seating for about 25 patrons and, as a matter of fact, singer Connie Francis was once in town visiting with her family, and she and her entourage filled almost all of them. Her meal that day? Beef braciole. She followed up her visit by sending a gift basket to the deli which contained her autobiography, Who’s Sorry Now? and an autographed photo of her. It hangs right near the register.
Time to "lift the lid" on a further story here, one that perhaps will sound familiar. When Fran and Annamaria (maiden name Pepe) were growing up in Belleville, they shared the kitchen at home with Mama (their Mom, of course) and other siblings, cooking up a wealth of delicious Italian food.
That was a very crowded kitchen, but it was beneficial. When fate via layoffs elbowed both ladies into unemployment back in 2005, they knew what they wanted to do.
“We always wanted to open something together,” says Fran with fond recall of when the prior ownership approached her about buying the location when she visited there regularly. But there was a bit of apprehension.
“We wondered, ‘Will they (the customers) like our food?” says Annamaria.
“I was scared,” adds Fran. “I used to think, “Are we going to make it?”
Well, Pepe Sisters Italian American Deli has made it. The deli has its regular customers, and that number is growing. “Many people tell us, ‘We came here because someone told us,” says Fran with a smile.
“If you came here yesterday,” claims Annamaria, looking around the deli, “there were no seats. We were packed! I used to make a lot of cookies (which she still does). Give us something to cook, and we’ll make it our own way.”
That last sentence may very well be the defining descriptor of Pepe Sisters Italian American Deli. Food quality is No. 1 here, and last week, with Christmas Eve and Christmas Day on the doorstep, much was ordered and readied for the big evening and day.
“We did very well,” affirms Fran of the holiday.
“I made 400 pounds of cookies,” says Annamaria.
Everything at Pepe Sisters Italian American Deli is homemade and fresh, and Fran and Annamaria are quick to point out that, with each food order being made fresh, you will have to wait for food. However, the end product is well worth it, and so is the friendly conversation that ensues. Both ladies arrive daily at 7 a.m. to begin food prep, then leave at 5 p.m. (Saturday at 4; the deli is closed on Sunday.) And that prep includes all pastas, sausage and more.
“When people order sausage and peppers for catering, they get it from us – homemade,” says Annamaria proudly.
And as for eggplant, the sister duo travels to a Sparta farm to pick their own. “We make it with no skin and no bread crumbs; just eggs and flour.”
Mama, 81, helms the chicken and soup area. She is in charge of all the chicken cutlet parmigiana and grilled chicken – the two biggest sellers at the deli – the grilled vegetables, and soups. Chicken soup and pasta e fagioli are made every day.
“No cans,” says Annamaria. “We’re Mama’s assistants,” she adds, and shares a laugh with Fran.
Also, any bottled waters and sodas, pastas and other packaged items that are sold are directly from Italy. Fresh brewed coffee, cappuccino and espresso are also offered, as are a variety of breakfast and lunch sandwiches.
Pepe Sisters Italian American Deli is now taking orders for New Year’s. Antipasto platters, cold cut and sandwich platters, 3-6 foot subs, full- and half- size trays of appetizers, entrees and pastas, and homemade Italian desserts.
Pepe Sisters Italian American Deli, 82 Overlook Ave., Belleville, (973) 751-7199