Chiocca’s Downstairs Deli

Writer’s block is the bane of my existence. How do I spell relief? A trip to Chiocca’s Downstairs Deli, an antediluvian throwback in the Museum District. Subterranean and hidden beneath a corner of Kensington and Belmont, this six-decades-old bar and sandwich dive has it all: torn seats, fading signs from defunct local bars and publications, peeling lead paint, and the aura of a speakeasy. Until recently, there was an old-timey portrait of a pinup girl in the men’s room, a facility with the approximate dimensions of a Trapper Keeper.

This institution (pronounced Chah-kuz) is a living testament to the Chiocca family’s move from Italy to Richmond in the 1890s. Patriarch Pietro Chiocca had his sons run everyman eateries on Franklin Street and in Carytown and the Fan. This last surviving outpost, which opened in 1952, is all about “Peggy”— the cast-iron, gas-powered Star broiler that has prepared countless sailor sandwiches since it was bought sometime in the 1930s. Pietro’s son Mario Chiocca named it after his beloved wife, who passed away when his children, Timmy and Maria, were young.

The progeny kept its flame burning until 2010, when neighborhood restaurateur Scott Ripley pounced.  “Living three blocks away,” he recalls, shoveling a Reuben into the glowing oven, “I heard through the grapevine that it was for sale. Timmy was getting older. He had neck problems. I was looking to start up a new restaurant, but the costs were so high compared to buying something established. You can’t get any more established than 1952.”

Ripley put in Wi-Fi and flat-screen TVs. For the first time in the history of the dive, he started accepting credit cards. VCU and UVA games pack the joint. He says that Peggy’s patent number suggests she was manufactured sometime in the early 1930s. Three sandwiches max at a time, seven days a week, 63 years of business. That’s an awful lot of broiled-in flavoring for this hardware, which has so far has only required new glass windows when the old ones fogged. “It is,” says Ripley, “what makes the sandwiches what they are.”

So then what happens to Chiocca’s when Peggy finally retires? After all, it’s not like you can just order her replacement on eBay.

“When I looked at it,” explains Ripley, “it wasn’t broken and there aren’t so many parts. I don’t need to fix it. Yes, nobody really has a warranty for it. But the guy who fixes our slicer thinks — if he had to — he could take a crack at it.”

Peggy’s slow-cooking ways make for the perfect excuse to meet regulars. I’ve struck up many a convo with Ripley and his staff, and have met fellow reporters, craftbrewsters and inked-out Richmonders at this downstairs deli. “Back in the day,” says Ripley, “the only sandwich they made here was the sailor. Timmy’s dad, when he started it, he would make you a sandwich and talk to you. He only waited on a few people a day.”

It was, he says, that fun and inviting neighborhood spot in a neck of the woods known for its magically disappearing hubcaps, pickpockets, and a biker bar. “When you come in, everyone comes in with a good attitude. You come down here because you want to enjoy yourself. Open kitchen. Cold beers. Interaction between customers and staff. You can jump in on anybody’s conversation.”

(The way his server cuts into our conversation.)

This was a bad neighborhood?” she asks, incredulous.

“Oh, yeah,” he says. “They called it the ‘Devil’s Triangle.’ Could you imagine?”

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Roben hosts public radio's Full Disclosure, which airs on NPR One, SoundCloud, iTunes, Stitcher, and WRIR 97.3FM. Before moving to Richmond in 2012, he was senior writer for Businessweek in New York. He is writing a book on his home town Miami in the early 1980s.