Restaurants that stay open a long time tend to accumulate a collection of regular patrons. They're die-hard fans who come in and order from the same short list of items, always expecting consistency. The menus often stagnate, the processes in the kitchen become routine and without thoughtfulness, and nothing ever changes. Some people like that—you always get the same thing, you always know what to expect—but I'm not one of those people.
Tony's Italian Deli is the epitome of consistency—it doesn't look like it's changed a bit since it opened in 1976. But whether that's a good thing or a bad thing is a matter of preference, I suppose. The interior seemed a bit dingy and the place felt a little like a dive bar-turned-restaurant. That isn't to say that it wasn't clean—it could just use a fresh coat of paint and some new tablecloths, for starters.
Service at Tony's is East Coast friendly. The waitresses call you "hon" and "dear" and know their customers, and their menu. But if you're looking for a fast meal, look elsewhere. Both of our visits stretched well beyond an hour—a little rough on the workday lunch crowd—and main courses took anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes to arrive. All of the food we ordered had potential but fell short in one way or another.
The menu is cluttered with a mixture of regular deli sandwiches, deli special sandwiches, hero sandwiches, pizza, salads, Italian dinners, house specialties (remarkably similar to the Italian dinners) and a few basic appetizers: garlic bread, garlic cheese bread, hot wings and mozzarella sticks. There isn't much on the menu that isn't served on, covered with, or served alongside bread and pasta. There is lots and lots and lots of bread and pasta.
I met Ted for lunch at Tony's on a weekday, and there certainly wasn't a lunchtime rush. After much deliberation (there are tons of choices on the menu), I decided on carbonara ($9.99), listed as one of the house specialties, and Ted went with the Sky High deli special sandwich on rye ($7.49). My pasta came with garlic bread and a salad, and the sandwich came with a choice of sides—Ted picked potato salad. The salad and garlic bread arrived quickly, and the salad was definitely the best part of the meal. The lettuce was crisp and fresh and was topped with all sorts of goodies, from green and black olive slices to tomatoes, shredded cheese and a pickled mushroom (yummy). The Italian dressing is made in-house, and had a nice, subtle flavor without drowning the salad. The garlic bread wasn't garlicky and required a good dose of salt to be anywhere near edible. It tasted mostly like bland, crusty white bread with some oil on it.
When the meals finally arrived, Ted's sandwich far outshined my carbonara, though I must give credit for Tony's making the carbonara the proper way, without cream or milk. Unfortunately, any of the good flavors that might have been in the carbonara were instantly overwhelmed by the bitter taste of burnt garlic. The pasta passed al dente about five minutes before it stopped cooking, there wasn't nearly enough cheese, and there was way, way too much oil. There was a good half-inch of oil on the bottom of the serving dish that my spaghetti was swimming in. The Sky High sandwich is a twist on the traditional Reuben, with the addition of pastrami, coleslaw in place of sauerkraut and Swiss cheese. The flavors blended well and the coleslaw added a nice crunch to the sandwich. If you order it on anything other than rye bread, you're crazy. The potato salad could have used a little more mustard and big pinches of salt and pepper.
Our second visit was even more underwhelming than the first. The service actually managed to be slower than on the first visit, and Ted and I both left unimpressed with our meals. This time, I went with the sampler plate ($9.99), which consisted of lasagna, cheese ravioli, eggplant parmesan, a stuffed shell and penne pasta. Ted ordered the Italian beef sandwich ($7.99), described as "Chicago style" on the menu. We also ordered the garlic cheese bread appetizer ($3.50). The garlic cheese bread came out relatively quickly and was pleasant enough—the mozzarella is made in-house, and it's squeaky-fresh and pretty darn tasty. But the entrees took 45 minutes to arrive (and yes, I timed it, after the first lengthy lunch) and were not worth the wait.
My sampler platter was so smothered in marinara sauce that I had no idea what was underneath all of it—indiscernible lumps of pasta and cheese lurked below. The ravioli were bland, the stuffed shell filling had an off-putting texture, and damned if I could find any meat in the lasagna. The eggplant parmesan (once I found it underneath all that sauce) was limp, soggy and, frankly speaking, gross. The penne was probably the best part and that's only because it had a nice layer of the house mozzarella and was actually al dente. The marinara sauce didn't have a bad flavor, though it was missing some of the richness and onion/garlic undertones that a really good marinara has, but there was just way too much of it.
Ted's Italian beef sandwich was also bland. It comes with sautéed onions and sweet peppers, but he had also asked for hot peppers, which never arrived. The beef wasn't seasoned, and it came with a teeny cup of au jus. The cup wasn't large enough for dipping, so Ted made do with pouring a little bit of juice on the sandwich before each bite. It definitely wasn't a Chicago-style Italian beef.
I wanted to order a cannoli and a slice of cheesecake ($3 each), but considering how long it took for our waitress to notice that we had finished our meals, I decided that—like the rest of our dining experience—it probably wasn't worth the additional wait.