• Ethos Deli + Dining Room's version is inspired by a long-gone Perth eatery. (Ethos Deli + Dining Room)Source: Ethos Deli + Dining Room
Meat, cheese, antipasti, history: the conti has it all. In 2021, a new generation is remaking the much-loved sandwich.
By
Max Veenhuyzen

30 Aug 2021 - 11:48 AM  UPDATED 30 Aug 2021 - 12:32 PM

Once upon a time, Perth’s European delis were the only places you could find the city’s legendary continental roll: an Italian-Australian sandwich featuring cold cuts and antipasti crammed into a chewy, well-tanned roll. These places included institutions such as The Re Store, Charlies Fresh Food Market and Lo Presti & Son: neighbourhood spots that were home to Italian groceries, Italian snacks and Italian migrants hungry for tastes of 'the old country'. While these old-timers (the stores, not the migrants) still make a fine roll, they’re now joined by a new generation of conti proponents.

In the five years since I first covered conti rolls for SBS Food, Perth has gone through something of a conti explosion and the west’s most famous sandwich can now be found at cafes and bakeries across the metropolitan area. Some make their own rolls in-house. Some outsource the task. Some rolls stay faithful to the traditional conti formula, while others see the conti taken in new directions, such as the vegetarian conti at Subiaco small bar, Bark. Admittedly, some rolls are premade – at a traditional European deli, the rolls would almost always be made-to-order – and pitched at the takeaway lunch crowd, but that doesn’t stop them from ticking the boxes for being tasty, filling and pro-WA.

Bark offers a vegetarian version of the meat-heavy classic sandwich.

While some are happy to settle for convenience, there will always be eaters and makers that go the extra mile for a well-made conti. One of conti-kind’s more committed champions is Melissa Palinkas. The chef/co-owner of Ethos Deli + Dining Room – a NYC-esque eatery she opened in August 2020 with wife, Susan Whelan – is a talented charcutier who makes everything in Ethos’s house conti. The make-up of her sandwich (the roll is just cold cuts and antipasti) is as much about highlighting Palinakas' handiwork as it is about honouring the similarly understated contis she grew up eating at North Perth’s dear departed Di Chiera Brothers.

“A lot of people like lettuce and tomato in their roll, but mixed meat with antipasti is what says conti roll to me,” says Palinkas.

The conti is also an excellent vehicle for Perth’s craft bakers to flex their skills. Although contis were traditionally made with crisp and chewy Italian rolls, most of the contis sold at new-wave bakeries tend to be made with baguettes. At Chu Bakery, Seren and Ryan Chu bake a sourdough baguette for their conti. Over at nearby Miller + Baker, a rye levain and house-milled flour makes for a softer, more savoury baguette. A quick, hot bake colours and caramelises North Street Store’s baguettes. While North Street’s antipasti-free roll chimes with the brand’s go-Aussie bravura, the atypical inclusion of pickles and a light aioli gives the roll a certain Big Mac-esque quality. (In a good way). Lachlan Bisset, one of the partners behind North Street Store, believes variety is the spice of the conti life. “I think there’s a million ways to make a good sandwich with your traditional conti ingredients,” says Bisset. “Ours isn’t necessarily the right one, but it is how we’ve always done it.”

The city’s biggest conti success story of late, however, is Deli’s Continental, a pop-up launched in December by Stev Makhlouta and Aldo Putzu, two pizzaiolos determined to shake up Perth’s conti game. Not only did the duo have a sharp, limited-edition product, they also had a savvy Instagram-driven approach to marketing that saw them sell out in just 30 minutes on day one.

Since its arrival on the scene, Deli’s Continental has continued to sell out every day and has grown to the point that its owners are preparing to open a permanent deli in September.

“I think there’s a million ways to make a good sandwich with your traditional conti ingredients.”

While the expansion will give Makhlouta and Putzu the space to expand and add new items, they’ll be sticking to the script with their contis. “The bread needs to be ours,” says Putzu. “As a forno, as a bakery, using somebody else’s bread doesn’t make sense.” They're not just baking their own bread, they're also making their rolls with pickled chilli and a wholly unconventional – but wholly successful – capsicum conserva.

“I don’t know if that’s how The Re Store and Charlies did it, but our approach was making the roll that we like to eat,” says Makhlouta. “Perth is probably just over halfway through the conti timeline. There’s so much history that’s already been built, but there’s also still plenty more to come.”

Mary Street Bakery reimagines the classic conti as a toastie.

Six New-School Perth Continental Rolls To Try

Although meat, veg and bread is a tough combination to beat, a great conti roll is one of the best things you can eat west of the Nullarbor. In addition to established versions from Perth’s longstanding Italian delis, these are some of the new contenders worth seeking out. Unless specified, all are made using house-baked bread.

Deli’s Continental ($11)
A girthy roll (crisp of crust, chewy of crumb) is prepped with an undercoat of capsicum conserva before being topped with mortadella, Hungarian salami, casalinga and a creamy pecorino-style cow’s milk cheese. For freshness: pickled chillies, tomato, red onion and shaved lettuce. A future classic. Available at pop-ups only until the September opening of a permanent Deli’s Continental.

North Street Store ($10)
It starts with a chewy, heavily tanned – and heavily buttered – baguette. Next comes the ham, sopressa, mortadella, sliced Swiss cheese, tomato and shredded lettuce. Slices of dill pickle and a light aïoli bring sharpness, brightness and a whisper of The Golden Arches (in a good way) to the party.

Ethos Deli + Dining Room ($18) 
While the bread might be a par-baked baguette from Jean Pierre Sancho, everything else in the aptly named ultimate conti is house-made, from the meat – mortadella, smoked picnic ham, salami cotto and coppa – to the eggplant melanzane and semi-dried tomatoes that ride shotgun alongside the smallgoods. It comes with hand-cut potato chips and is available in takeaway form for $14.

Miller + Baker ($12.50)
A passion project overseen by the cafe’s manager Alex Lowes, Big Al’s conti sees coppa, ham, mortadella and provolone (sometimes sliced, sometimes grated into long strands) tucked into a toothsome sourdough baguette. Parsley butter, roasted paprika, rocket and a house mayo tie everything together.

Chu Bakery ($12.50)
Although grilled capsicum and melanzane feature in the ingredients list, the conti from this petite bakery-cafe is less about the antipasti and more about the magic that happens when good meat (salami, ham, mortadella), cheese (thickish slices of Swiss) and bread (a sourdough baguette) come together.

Mary Street Bakery ($10)
What happens when you cross a toasted sandwich with Perth’s favourite Italian-inspired sanga? Deliciousness, naturally. House piccalilli, provolone cheese, leg ham and a seeded mustard mayo are bookended by slices of polenta loaf and toasted till crisp and everywhere it should be.

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