Shortly after the 49ers beat the Carolina Panthers to advance to the NFC Championship Game, Chris Bertucelli sent a text to 49ers secondary coach Ed Donatell saying: “You guys looked great. Congrats!”
Included in Donatell’s response: “Big order this week.”
Bertucelli is one of the owners of Bertucelli’s La Villa Gourmet Deli in the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose. He’s also the creator and namesake of the deli’s “Chris’s Combo” sandwich, which this season has become a travel-day fixture for some 49ers players and coaches heading to away games.
On Friday afternoon, Bertucelli delivered 70 of the sandwiches – roughly 50 for players and 20 for coaches – to the 49ers’ headquarters before they boarded a plane bound for Seattle and Sunday’s conference title game against the Seahawks.
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“We get them for the plane,” said special-teams ace Bubba Ventrone, who admitted some of the sandwiches don’t always make it that far.
Bertucelli said the deli, which he runs with his sister, Trisha Hollywood, has been in the family since 1988 and has become popular with local sports figures and teams, including the Sharks. But it wasn’t well-known to the 49ers until Donatell, who had stopped in one day for lunch, began extolling its merits.
When Bertucelli told Donatell that the deli had supplied the Sharks with food for trips, the coach expressed interest in doing the same for the 49ers. Bertucelli delivered the first order – maybe 10 sandwiches – before the team’s preseason trip to Kansas City.
“After that trip, players popped in and started buying more food,” Bertucelli said.
Ventrone said he started going every Friday before picking up his daughter from school in the area. He now coordinates the travel-day orders for players. All of them, he said, get the same sandwich. Some players – including Ventrone, Aldon Smith and Frank Gore – get two.
“Usually if we have a long trip, I’ll eat one here and one midway on the plane,” Ventrone said. “I’ve got my little routine down.”
The Chris’s Combo – which is off-the-menu – is a warm sandwich that features multiple meats and cheeses on a sweet French roll. That’s as detailed as Bertucelli will get about the ingredients. It comes wrapped in butcher paper and boasts a nicely seasoned sauce. So what makes it so good?
“I really don’t know,” Ventrone said. “The bread’s awesome. They don’t tell you exactly what’s in it, but it’s a couple meats, a couple different cheeses, and it’s an Italian deli, so it’s a pretty good spot.”
“It just has everything you’d want in a sandwich,” said guard Joe Looney, who said he took his parents to the deli when they visited for a game. “It just tastes so authentic.”
Bertucelli said he makes all the sandwiches for the 49ers’ orders himself. He usually gets to the deli by 6 a.m., anyway, and it takes him about three minutes to make one Chris’s Combo. The bread is delivered by a local bakery.
“I was texting my bread driver during the (Carolina) game: ‘Get ready, buddy,’ ” Bertucelli said.
While most of the 49ers eat the sandwich as is, Bertucelli said there’s the rare exception: “Bubba asks me to double the meat. So does (offensive coordinator Greg) Roman.”
Demand for the sandwich has skyrocketed since word of the 49ers’ interest in it began to spread, Bertucelli said. But the ritual almost fell apart before it really got started – after the 49ers’ first trip to Seattle this season resulted in a 29-3 drubbing in Week 2.
Before the 49ers’ next away game, Ventrone said, “I asked a few guys if they wanted (the sandwiches) and they were like, ‘No, no, we lost.’ And then Frank (Gore) was like, ‘No. We’re getting them.’
“Some guys didn’t want them, but we still ordered them. And then once we kept winning, everyone just kind of kept wanting them.”
Ventrone said he doesn’t know if players’ interest in the sandwiches is for luck or purely culinary, but: “I’ve been doing some superstition stuff this year, so I’ve been trying to be consistent with what I do.”
Said Looney: “It’s just because they’re really good.”
Bertucelli said he and his wife have their own game-day ritual that includes breakfast and donning “the correct 49er apparel” before settling down on the couch. “I have a specific shirt, she has a hat, a beanie,” he said. “It’s worked two weeks in a row and we’re hoping it works again.”
As for what happened on that last trip to Seattle? Bertucelli offered a possible explanation: he was on the injured list at the time, sidelined from work by a knee injury.
“The only saving grace I have for that is I was not here to physically make the sandwiches for that trip,” Bertucelli said. “I didn’t put my love into them.”