Another iconic downtown Provo restaurant closed its doors Thursday night — but not before going out in style.
Rocco’s Big City Deli, a staple on the corner of University Avenue and Center Street for almost 30 years, closed its doors for good with a final feast Thursday night. The large sandwich menu sign that greeted customers as they descended the stairs into the underground deli is down, the televisions that were always tuned into a sports game are gone, and the baseball cards that adorn the walls are headed somewhere else.
That didn’t stop the droves of customers streaming in for one more chance to snag an old favorite: the Italian Job, the Big City, the Manhattan, the Mob City Grinder, the Hot Chick, the Steak Conference, or the Baseball Hero. The lines were long but no one seemed to mind, since they knew this was their last Rocco’s sandwich.
With his red and black New York Mets knit cap on his head, C.J. Gandolph, current owner, alternated between shouting out names for orders and hellos to old friends and customers.
“So glad you did this one more night, man,” said one friend as he grabbed his sandwich.
As the night got closer to its final 9 p.m. closing time and ingredients ran out, workers behind the counter pulled individual sandwich menu items off the back wall, until only a few remained.
The iconic deli has a Provo highlight for 28 years, and housed in its underground spot for 27 of those years. Before it was known as Rocco’s, it went by the name of Gandolfo’s — yes, as in that sandwich chain. Craig Gandolph, C.J.’s father, founded Gandolfo’s New York Deli in 1990 right here in Provo. That first year was above-ground, in the restaurant now occupied by Enliten Bakery, before moving under the street.
Even while expanding the Gandolfo’s brand, Craig Gandolph kept his flagship deli in the heart of Provo. It was the place for first dates, a quick lunch, and more. Craig Gandolph spoke of a brick column in the middle of the restaurant, where hundreds of people inked their names over the years.
“It was like a history of the place,” he recalled. “So many stories, so many hundreds of thousands of people we’ve served over the years.”
Craig Gandolph sold the Gandolfo’s brand to his business partner in 2014, and right about the same time, his son, C.J. took over. They renamed the deli Rocco’s, and renamed the sandwiches, but continued their love for food.
Thursday night’s sendoff was very enjoyable Craig Gandolph said as he reminisced with people from all the decades of Rocco’s.
For C.J. Gandolph, the evening was a bit harder, as the deli had been around almost as long as he’d been alive. He and his siblings learned how to work in that place, and food has always been C.J. Gandolph’s dream. The deli started as a family affair and ended its run as one, as well. Father and son each had turns behind the counter, with other Gandolph siblings joining them throughout the night.
“It’s been my playground as a kid, my job for most of my life, my safe place, my home, and my No. 1 priority for way too long,” C.J. Gandolph said in a Facebook post about the closure. “Thank you for allowing my family to feed you and yours for the last 30 years. It’s truly been a joy and an honor to be a part of your lives.”
C.J. Gandolph said running the restaurant himself was running him ragged, so he knew he had to step back. He has hopes of starting something similar later this year, but for now, he’s taking a well-needed breather.
“It’s not a job for one person. If I would have had a partner, or some solid financial backing to keep it going through the slow times, I would’ve kept going,” he said Thursday night.