Pasadena’s Most Iconic Sandwich Is This $6 Pink Wax Paper-Wrapped Sub

Ask Rosario Mazzeo where he gets the motivation to continue coming to work at his Roma Market in Pasadena each day at 83 years old, and the answer is simple: “You gotta like what you do—that’s it. If you don’t like what you do, do something else.”

He was 15 when he first started working here and proudly tells LA TACO he’s taken “no days off, seven days a week in 72 years”. His daily lunch of choice is a plate of fresh figs if they are in season, and grapes, if they are not, with some freshly baked sliced ​​bread.

At 4 PM on a recent Tuesday, he is taking a short break on his old throne of a wooden chair, visible as soon as you enter Roma Market. He’s been up since 4 AM restocking the shop’s cheeses, tinned fish, olives, and specialty pasta, all imported from Italy.

Rosario Mazzeo and his nephew Marco Tjaden. Photo by Javier Cabral for LA TACO.

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Inside the deli.  Photo by Javier Cabral for LA TACO.
Inside the deli. Photo by Javier Cabral for LA TACO.

Two hours away from closing up his independently-owned store, he stands up to recommend a good deal on salami to a longtime customer who addresses Rosario by his first name. The shop is a living and breathing relic in Pasadena. You get a sense of old-school LA’s once-thriving Italian population here, which Mazzeo tells LA TACO he sincerely misses.

“My old Italian customers, they came and bought so much meat and cheese because they cooked at home,” he says. “Now, people buy so little and go out to eat too much.”

But the real reason many customers happily make the drive north and local residents are loyal to this institution is Rosario’s $6 pre-made submarine sandwich tightly wrapped in the deli’s iconic pink butcher paper. Paper-thin slices of mortadella, capicola, salami, and provolone with a drizzle of olive oil on a sturdy, semolina-dusted crusty roll that Rosario’s “cousin” makes every morning acts as a food-powered portal, teleporting customers to a simpler time when extremely filling food was still $6 in Los Angeles.

Inside the deli.  Photo by Javier Cabral for LA TACO.
Inside the deli. Photo by Javier Cabral for LA TACO.
Inside the deli.  Photo by Javier Cabral for LA TACO.
Inside the deli. Photo by Javier Cabral for LA TACO.

On weekends, they make up to 820 a day. If you are vegetarian and lucky, you might nab Roma’s vegetarian version, which is a simplistic masterpiece: a smattering of sliced, pickled artichoke hearts with a few thin slices of provolone. He only makes about two dozen of those a day, so come early.

Hearing the oral history of this sandwich’s origin story is worth the sandwich mission alone. First, Rosario may reprimand you, “go read my recognition on the wall first!” In April of this year, the mayor of Pasadena recognized Rosario for the patriarch he is, as a “Pasadena Legacy Business.” And once you go read it and show some respect to the man, he will share how this minimalist sandwich was created.

“This man that I used to buy wine from in the 50s told me, ‘give me a piece of bread! I’m hungry,’” Rosario recounts. “So I gave him that piece of bread with some meats. Then the next day, he came back with five people and wanted it again!”

Federico Gutierrez
Federico Gutierrez. Photo by Javier Cabral for LA TACO.
Photo by Javier Cabral for LA TACO.
Photo by Javier Cabral for LA TACO.

The snowball effect continues to this day; through two generations of cult followings, despite having zero social media presence. Roma Market is modeled and inspired after Rosario’s parents’ deli in Sicily, where Rosario was born and lived until he was 12 years old and moved to Pasadena.

Rosario’s employees are also lifers. His right-hand man, Federico Gutierrez, is originally from Jerez, Zacatecas. He started working at Roma when he was 15. Now he’s 57.

He remembers a time he even showed up to work after dislocating his shoulder, saying, “I still had my other arm that was strong!”

Gutierrez recounts that the last time he took two weeks off was in 1992. Both he and Rosario are neighbors and live a block away from the market. They both walk back home together after work. “I also like my work, and that’s why I’ve never called in sick.”

Photo by Javier Cabral for LA TACO.
Photo by Javier Cabral for LA TACO.
Photo by Javier Cabral for LA TACO.
All deli meats and cheeses are sliced ​​to order. Photo by Javier Cabral for LA TACO.
Photo by Javier Cabral for LA TACO.
Photo by Javier Cabral for LA TACO.

Another secret to Rosario’s longevity? Something he feels passionate about? Not eating at restaurants.

“It’s always going to be better at home, and eating at home is much better for you,” he says. “I never liked restaurants.”

He shares that he has gone to food trade shows in the past in New York, and even then, he would take a loaf of bread home to his hotel room with some cured meat and olives. At 83 years young, he is as sharp as the wedges of freshly cracked parmigiano reggiano his shop sells by the pound.

When asked if he thinks he will ever remove, he brushes it off with his rugged hands.

“It’s not for me,” he says. “I love to work.”

Recently, his 52-year-old nephew Marco Tjaden started making the drive from Northern California’s Bay Area Pasadena to learn his uncle’s craft.

“I’m a newbie,” he says as he restocks some dried folder and checks inventory. “I’ve been coming here my whole life, and I’m learning, so I can continue his tradition of it.”

He owns a business constructing waterfalls and ponds in Silicon Valley, but he is prepared to keep Roma Market going strong after Rosario decides to finally get some rest.

“I’m going to keep it in the family as long as I can.”

Roma Market ~918 N Lake Ave, Pasadena, CA 91104 ~ Open 9 AM to 5:30 PM every day.

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