Jackie Huerta has reinvented herself once again.
After COVID-19 restrictions forced event cancellations, the Oak Harbor caterer began making Sunday dinners to-go. Now she has opened a storefront restaurant, Zanini’s Deli, to share her Italian cooking with more hungry islanders.
And in true 2020 fashion, it hasn’t been easy.
Huerta said the opening day of her restaurant was a “perfect day,” despite an island-wide power outage the day before and the governor’s announcement of new COVID-19 restrictions in the middle of a busy opening.
She had to postpone opening the deli by one day because the island-wide power outage from the Friday the 13th storm disrupted deli preparations. She was awake for more than 24 hours straight to get everything ready, and it paid off.
Word of the new deli spread and there were already people lined up by the time it opened, Huerta and her son, Thomas, said.
“It was unbelievable,” Jackie Huerta said.
They were slammed from the moment the doors opened, the two recalled.
It’s not a huge space and some people had to wait outside, but Jackie Huerta’s daughter offered coffee and Italian cookies (and socially distant crowd control).
They sold out 45 minutes early and went through all 400 meatballs.
News of the governor’s new COVID-19 restrictions, which prohibits indoor dining and limits restaurant occupancy to 25 percent, hit in the middle of a busy morning.
The deli closed the next day in order to prepare for take-out service, but both Huertas weren’t fazed.
“I don’t get very discouraged. We just do what we need to do to serve this community this fabulous food,” Jackie Huerta said.
Her son agreed.
“We had a lot of speed bumps in the road to get here. Nothing’s going to stop us,” he said.
The Italian mom has owned and operated a catering business for many years, and having a storefront has been a dream for a long time.
The deli serves the same dishes Huerta prepared in her catering business, but is smaller portions (although they are quite large) that are more accessible both in price and in size.
Indeed, one serving of Auntie Jackie’s Lasagna is two and a quarter pounds and comes smothered in a robust meat sauce layered with flavor for $17.99. She also makes a vegetarian lasagna option that is full of bright vegetables.
One order of Meatballs Don Michael comes with a half-dozen of the generously sized spheres for $13.50. Ask them to turn some of them into son Thomas Huerta’s specialty — a meatball grinder topped with gooey provolone and mozzarella cheeses for $14.99.
The deli also offers Italian salads, bruschetta, marinated mozzarella, and its own focaccia bread.
For fellow sweet tooths, the colorful assortment of Italian cookies will not disappoint, and the menu’s Italian olive oil and lemon cake may become too tempting for this reporter to resist.
Huerta did not go to culinary school like her brothers, but instead learned from her mother, aunts and cousins. Pictures of family members grace the walls inside the new storefront. Her mother’s maiden name is her business’ namesake.
She could get discouraged by the COVID-19 restrictions and the power outage, on top of all of the other effort required to run a business, but when she begins to feel overwhelmed, Jackie Huerta remembers her family.
“I can hear them telling me ‘Stop it. You have something to give,’” she explained.
For now, the business owner asked for patience as she navigates how to open in accordance with the new COVID-19 restrictions. The deli will be open for takeout and curbside. More information can be found on the deli’s social media and zaninistogo.com.
She hopes that people visiting the deli feel welcomed, and she’s known by many as Auntie Jackie regardless of family association.