NORTH PROVIDENCE — Call this a tale that will tug at your heart strings. If not, your mouth, for sure, will water.
Chris Gomes has such love for his daughter, 24-year-old Crystal Gomes, he not only helped her buy the Original Tom's Deli & Catering, LLC, located at 1137 Charles St., but also found someone to help teach her about the business.
That expert just happens to be Tom Procaccini, the same man who turned his small variety store into this “Home of Italian Specialties.”
“We had a little convenience store in the next building over; myself, my wife, Vilma, and our children ran it after we bought it in 1970,” Procaccini, of Johnston, grinned Wednesday morning, just an hour or so before the lunch rush. “An elderly person had lived in this house, and it was up for sale after he died. My son, John, inquired about it, and we ended up buying it.”
For 37 years, the family ran the deli and catering service and watched it grow, but the elder Procaccini, now 79, chose to retire in 2007.
The business went vacant for a couple of years, but – back in January – the Gomes family, which owned a small coffee shop down Charles Street, entered the picture.
“A friend of mine from Quality Rental, Danny, told me in January about a place for sale, and he said it was an old deli and catering spot,” said Chris Gomes.
Ex-de“I immediately thought about it, and I knew it was a long-time dream of my daughter's; she always had wanted to run her own business.
“She had a nice little job as an assistant manager at a Benny's in Cranston, but I said, 'The heck with it.' I bought this place for Crystal,” he continued. “I met Tom and his son, John, in February, but there were other people still interested in purchasing this site. My wife, Maria, and I invited Tom down to our shop to meet Crystal and have a cup of coffee, but we also were trying to persuade Tom to sell it to us.
“He didn't know us at all. We had never met before, but the deal was done with a handshake that night. He didn't even want a deposit.”
Offered Procaccini: “I came out of retirement just to help out Crystal.”
Laughed “Daddy” Gomes: “It must've been a great cup of coffee. No, seriously, he gave me the best deal that he could, and I said, 'I'll take it!' They actually gave us a better deal than maybe he would've to one of his own family members.”
The purchase became official on Feb. 1, and the “Original Tom's Deli & Catering” opened a month later after some remodeling and cleaning by the Gomes clan. Gomes the buyer promised the name would not change – ever – as he considers Procaccini a member of the family.
No one had to twist Procaccini's arm to become a teacher of creating scrumptious deli sandwiches and dishes.
“It's in my veins, it's in my blood, to cook,” he explained. “I was going crazy at home; I don't play golf, and I was doing nothing. I was taking care of my wife, and I did a lot of walking, but I was still bored. I liked what I did before, and that was cooking and preparing foods.”
His first lesson for Crystal: Prepping chicken cutlets.
“We fillet our own,” he grinned. “You know, she's a very good learner.”
Noted Chris: “He's also taught Crystal how to make his famous macaroni salad … You may not understand this, but Tom is a legend in these parts. Folks would bring in their own pans and ask him to make his superb lasagna so they could serve it during the holidays. Church people would come in with their pans and ingredients, and ask him to make them cornbread.
“People would ask him at Easter time for his rice pies, or his spinach pies,” he added. “They wouldn't just come in for his food, but to see him, ask how he's doing. He's truly known for his whole-loaf or half-loaf Italian grinders. His meatballs and eggplant parm are old family recipes, and they're to die for.
“You can ask anybody who came here 20-30 years ago, and they'll tell you they can still taste how delicious his dishes were. The way I figure it, the key to success of this place is to keep it Tom's way from 30-40 years ago.”
Procaccini indicated the staff there – consisting of himself as “food instructor,” Crystal, Chris, Maria and Crystal's kid brother Christopher, a 21-year-old wanna-be actor/musician – will pride itself on making their own foods, and that the business is as much a catering service as delicatessen.
“We have steady customers to the deli, but our catering is mostly seasonal,” the elder Gomes said. “You know, we do graduations, communions, confirmations, that kind of stuff, so April, May and June are busy months. Then again, so is Christmas. Tom told us he's been swamped during the holidays.”
When asked if Christopher listens to his big sister, Gomes laughed, “No, he doesn't take her orders. With this economy, he knows he has to work, but his passion – like ours is food and serving people – is acting and music. Still, he helps out around here.”
Among the “fan favorites”: A 12-inch eggplant parmagiano sandwich ($4.95); “The Colonial,” a shaved steak topped with mushrooms, onions, cheese of your choice and hot pepper rings on grilled garlic bread (half-loaf, $6.99, whole loaf, $12.45); “The Victorian,” a chicken cutlet parmagiano topped with peppers, mushrooms and cheese (half, $6.99, whole, $12.50); and “The Villa,” proscuitto (Italian ham) topped with sharp provolone, roasted peppers, lettuce, tomatoes, onion and choice of balsamic or Italian dressing (half, $7.29, whole, $12.95).
There also is the good ol' fashioned Italian grinder, which comes with proscuitto, cabicola, salami, pepperoni, provolone, lettuce, tomatoes, peppers (choice), pickles and hot relish with oil and vinegar or a special house dressing (consisting of secret Procaccini family seasonings). That goes for $7.95.
Famed frittatas – with vegetables, potato or ham & chesse, to name a few – may be purchased for $4.99 a slice, and stuffed peppers for $4.99 a pound. And, under the “Sizzling from the Fireplace” section of the menu, Italian, Steak, Roast Turkey, Chicken Cutlet, Veggie, Meatball and Grilled Sausage Sizzlers.
That price tag: $6.95.
They also serve club sandwiches, and veal, meatball and chicken dinners (with ziti or linguine) for $6.95-8.95.
Chris and Crystal received a splendid surprise back on July 28. That's when John Procaccini, Tom's son and a music agent, called with a huge order of meatballs and eggplant, calzones, a pizza platter and snail salad, not to mention chocolate bread pudding.
That food, Chris says proudly, was going to the rock group “The Doobie Brothers,” who were performing at the Sunset Music Series in Newport.
“It was all for backstage, and John came to pick it up,” Chris said proudly. “They sent an autographed photo to the deli. Crystal knew she was catering for celebrities, and she was really excited about it.”
That photo sits on the counter facing tables and chairs for “in-house” diners.
“There's no give-and-take with Dad,” chuckled Crystal, a 2005 Ponaganset High graduate, from behind the counter. “He says this is just an investment in his little girl, but I'm loving this. It's something I've always wanted to do. I think I have a passion for food, but also meeting and talking to people.
“Tom is a sweetheart,” she added. “He's been teaching me all of his secrets, like how to cook and season the meatballs, how to bread the chicken cutlets. He has a special way about him. He's like a grandfather. In fact, people think I'm his granddaughter, and I think it's great.”
Noted Procaccini: “I think they're all doing a terrific job. They're running it perfectly, and business is going well. You can see what they did to this building, the remodeling is beautiful, and it's so clean. Chris is a fanatic in that area; that's why we call him 'Mr. Clean.'
“Tom's Deli is in my blood, like I said. You know, helping out a young person, it makes me think this deli will survive longer than I will, and that makes me feel good.”
For more information, call (401) 726-1300, or fax the Gomes family at (401) 726-1380.