Jalal Heydari, an Iranian immigrant who landed in the Bay 35 years ago, might seem an unlikely candidate to own multiple Italian delis in San Francisco. He opened his first, Alimento in North Beach, after the 2008 financial crisis encouraged him to change directions from a career as a camera and electronics supplier. Nearly a decade later, Heydari opened Limoncello on Sutter Street in Pacific Heights.
Now, the deli’s location at 2862 24th St. near Bryant Street brings Italian gourmet to the heart of the Latino Cultural District, where it shares a block with historic La Palma Mexicatessen and Tio Chilo’s Grill.
An immigrant himself, Heydari embraces the confluence of culinary influences in the Mission District.
“Latino culture is one of the closest cultures to Iranians,” Heydari says with a smile. “It’s very warm.”
He offers a template for his success so far. “Employee, customer service, product — doesn’t matter which comes first. They are very important, and you need to accommodate them all together.”
Heydari greets me with a hug and tour of the premises. Imported specialty ingredients, antipastos and sauces line the wall, adorned with a cheery mural of pizza- and pasta-bearing cherubs. The nod to his heritage is the window filled with messages of solidarity with Iranian protesters in the wake of Mahsa Amini’s murder.
Limoncello 24th Street opened in August. The Sutter Street shop, operating since 2017, has five stars from more than 1,500 ratings on Yelp. A quick scroll through its reviews reveals that Limoncello has become a city staple; customers rave about its cured meats and friendly atmosphere in equal measure.
Despite the five-star Yelp reviews for his earlier deli, that wasn’t Heydari’s first idea for 24th Street. Instead, his wife, Rozita Shaker, opened Zita Wine Bar at at the site in in 2017. That went well, until the pandemic compelled the couple to shut down the Mission eatery. It was time to regroup and, when Mission landmark Lucca Ravioli closed in 2019, Heydari saw a need and pivoted.
Alongside a colorful array of sandwiches — including “The Goodfella” (roast beef, prosciutto, salami and provolone) and a porchetta roll — Limoncello serves up classic Italian deli dishes from eggplant parmesan to freshly prepared salads and various specialty grocery items. Indeed, Limoncello stocks guanciale, the cured pork traditionally used to make authentic carbonara, which I learned last week can be quite difficult to source in San Francisco (I had to substitute pancetta).
An array of wines and cured meats are available, as well as ample lounge space for dining in, though Heydari says that most of Limoncello’s revenue comes from the deli. Maintaining the deli and a gourmet grocery with global suppliers is a challenge in the current economic climate.
“It’s very hard right now; ordering is very difficult. The price of the products has been going through the roof with inflation,” he said, adding that he had to be on 24/7 to stock the right products.
Customers at Limoncello frequently call in Spanish, so Heydari has focused on hiring an entirely bilingual staff, many of whom live nearby.
Right now, the deli is open from 3 to 10 p.m., and Heydari will not open for lunch until he has trained enough staff. On the upside, prices are about a dollar cheaper per sandwich than at the Sutter Street location.
Heydari says the secret to his success is his meticulous attention to detail and adherence to high standards of quality and food safety. But the warmth and convivial atmosphere in his deli doesn’t hurt.
“That’s the way we run the business. We really care about the customer. It’s like our family.”
He prepared “The Siciliano” for me, a towering meat lover’s sandwich balanced with pistachios, pepperoncini, and a healthy dollop of Calabrian chili paste. I will most certainly be back.
Limoncello 24th Street is open Monday through Thursday from 3 to 9 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 3 to 10 p.m.