Step into Picasso’s Gourmet Deli & Art Gallery in Modesto and you step into a living art canvas.
Most chefs – even most self-proclaimed “foodies” – will tell you that food is art. For Spain-by-way-of-Ecuador transplant Jordi Camps, both meld inside the comfortably uptown but located downtown sandwich shop he owns with wife Margarita. The decor, the tables, the food, even the personal interaction are part of that art. And while Margarita will tell you Jordi is the artist, their deli is a collaborative piece.
Anyone who has frequented Picasso’s at the corner of 10th and J streets knows it’s not your typical eatery. Each of the tables is its own canvas, painted by Jordi in his expressionist, figurative style. From bottles on the counter to stairs leading up to a storage space, he puts his artistic touch on everything – not the least of which is the menu.
Sitting down with the couple gave me even more appreciation for the deli, a successful draw to lunchtime crowds for 17 years. And for how their food really is art.
“When we create a sandwich, when we choose the things that we put (into it), we try to be original,” Jordi said. He specifically instructs employees on how to re-create his edible art, from the way ingredients are stacked on sandwiches to the arrangement of items in salads.
“They need to (know how to) put the things in the sandwich,” he said. “How the sandwich is built is not just ‘boom, boom, boom.’ You need to build it in some way, the colors inside need to be in some way. It’s really important.”
Each of those 20 sandwiches is named for a classic artist, work, composer or song – the Pablo Picasso itself, the Van Gogh, the Mozart, the Yesterday (a tribute to The Beatles) and others.
The Mozart is one of my favorites – Black Forest ham, cheddar, honey mustard, avocado, lettuce, tomatoes and onions on squaw bread. When I’m feeling vegetarian, it’s the Mona Lisa – basil leaves, tomatoes, sprouts, a zesty little vinaigrette, all topped with blue cheese on ciabatta (I skip the sprouts, but Margarita assures me they’re delicious).
The menu offers a variety of meats, cheeses, fillings and condiments (tip alert: try anything with the sun-dried tomato spread!), as well as other vegetarian sandwich options. A daily special features a half sandwich with a side. The fare also includes salads and soups, specialty coffee drinks as well as breakfast panini until 10 a.m.
The Campses opened Picasso’s in 1990 after moving to Modesto from Ecuador. Margarita is a native of that South American country. Jordi is from Barcelona. Together they owned a successful restaurant, Bopan Art, Coffee & Bread, in Guayaquil, a port city of more than 2 million people.
They also are parents to two children – then ages 11 and 15 – and were looking to relocate outside the country, Margarita said. Her sister and brother-in-law then ran a Tony Roma’s in Modesto, so the move here seemed natural.
They settled on the downtown corner and launched their sandwich shop. At first, they were open into evenings and on weekends, but found their sweet spot on weekdays with breakfast and lunch. A large part of their business also comes from catering.
The two work together, taking orders or helping craft the food. From whoever mans the register on any given day, you’ll get a smile and a feeling that they care you stopped by.
“It’s a family place, it’s our home,” Jordi said. “I tell everybody, ‘Welcome home,’ and it’s not a joke, I feel they are home.”
It’s part of what he calls “social art.”
“The food is important, but the service you give to the customers is the most important,” Jordi said. “It’s deeper than just the food, it’s something that the people come for ... it’s not just make a sandwich, sell the sandwich.”
The Camps also give by welcoming other artists to exhibit at Picasso’s, free of charge. And Jordi’s art is available for purchase – “You can come here, have a sandwich and a painting,” he said, “go home and enjoy.”
Customers clearly enjoy the menu, with a line stretching the counter most weekdays from noon to 1 p.m. The line tapers after that, so here’s another tip: Break away for an early lunch or hold off and eat around 1:30 or 2 to miss the rush.
Next time: Flames, food and “Opa!”
Pat Clark: 209-578-2312