A tour of Philadelphia’s Jewish delis
PHOTOGRAPHS BY NEAL SANTOS
For me, delis were a place for grandparents. Rushed weeknight dinners with my curmudgeonly Mom-Mom in a neon-lit, now long shuttered deli off of City Line Avenue. Lox and eggs lunches with another grandmother in an Abington strip mall. Smoked sable and Nova platters, cream cheese and bagels from the Downbeach Deli down the Shore with another grandparent.
Growing up Jewish, childhood meals at delicatessens in the Philadelphia suburbs were never a special occasion for me, but with pint containers of schmaltz, cans of Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray soda and foot-long cow tongues sitting behind the counter between the roast beef and turkey, they were exotic and familiar at once.
So it’s not all that surprising that when I moved to New York in my late teens (as a vegetarian, no less), I gravitated to the dairy restaurants, delis and all-night Eastern European diners of the Lower East Side.
Places where, unknowingly, I found something in the cheese blintzes and potato latkes served with overflowing sour cream sides and bowls of cabbage soup with rye toast that had somehow cured their way into my mind with all of those salty, crunchy, comforting elements. Back home in Philadelphia these flavors are somewhat harder to find, but they are present if you know where to look. Russ Cowan, owner of Famous 4th Street Delicatessen, the gleaming, black-andwhite- tiled establishment, knows all about the universal appeal of the Jewish deli. “We get a real big mix of customers,” Cowan explains, sitting down in the dining room on a still-busy late Sunday afternoon. “This is a Jewish deli but it doesn’t mean that only Jewish people eat here,” says Cowan. He likens Famous 4th Street to an Italian restaurant with universal appeal. “Everybody eats here.”
Cowan is the fourth generation of a deli family with roots in Brooklyn. He’s the second owner of Famous 4th Street, taking it over after running nearly a dozen delis in Philadelphia and Jersey including three Kibitz Rooms and Kibitz in the City.
Famous came to Cowan as a fluke (or kipper, if we’re making deli puns). “Someone I knew came to my store in Ocean City, and he says to me, ‘Russ, you should buy Famous,’ and I said, ‘I don’t know.’” Anyone would have been apprehensive—the deli was worn around the edges when Cowan eventually took it over. “I redid the place. I kept it looking old, but I redid it from the roof to the basement. And we’ve quadrupled the business.”
But regrouting and hanging framed posters from Borscht Belt productions like “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn” and “My Mother’s Italian, My Father’s Jewish & I’m in Therapy” were hardly the only renovations that Cowan took on when rehabbing this 90-year-old deli.
When Cowan talks about the deli redux, he’s not just talking about the dining room. Production happens in all three floors of the building. “We do everything from scratch. There’s really no one else in the city that smokes their own pastrami and pickles their own corned beef. We take it to another level.”
Explaining that the tight Queen Village space doesn’t allow for Cowan to bake his own rye, he’s almost apologetic. And those burnished-copper fillets of sable behind the deli counter aren’t made in-house either, but they’re sure as hell not from Acme, a well-known smoked fish purveyor out of Greenpoint, Brooklyn. “No, I don’t buy from Acme, I don’t like them. Everybody else buys from Acme.”
Cowan has honed Famous 4th Street into a streamlined time capsule, a place that holds onto all the elements that make for the appeal of the Jewish deli. The menu that places deli stalwarts like sweet and sour matjes herring and kasha varnishkes (buckwheat groats and bow tie pasta with mushroom gravy) next to Reuben egg rolls and challah French toast. The crisply outfitted staff who gracefully land bowls of shredded cabbage health salad and half-sour pickles on your table, refill your coffee without question and send you off with miniature Famous 4th Street chocolate chip cookies at the end of each meal.
Heading out to the Great Northeast, there are still a few delis standing in a handful of historically Jewish neighborhoods. Steve Stein’s Famous Deli Restaurant has recently moved locations from one shopping center to another around the corner, paring down their once football-field-sized seating area in favor of a larger shopping area for a clientele that still have fresh bagels, sweet babkas and whitefish salad on their weekly shopping lists. A few blocks away, Jack’s Delicatessen has cut back opening hours for the early-bird set. If you want a corned beef special, you’d better get here no later than five, even on a Saturday night. It is worth noting, however, that the lottery machine and deli counter stay open until seven.
Onward toward Roosevelt Boulevard there is Casino Deli Restaurant, which to the deli-savvy observer looks more like a Philadelphia beef-and-ale barroom. Beyond the beer fridges stocked with to-go Yuenglings and Budweisers, the deli counter is appropriately stocked with knishes, blintzes and all sorts of smoked fish from Acme. But it’s Casino’s dining room (open until 8:30) that sets this Northeast deli apart.
Stuck in time, the worn carpeted floors and paneled ceilings are livened up with a vibrant, wraparound mural inspired by the glory days of Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Eye-popping portraits of Sinatra, Dean Martin, Siegfried and Roy, and countless showgirls line the walls. The menu lives in a similar era, with plates like flanken (short ribs from a time before they were called short ribs) in a pot of cabbage borscht served with one vegetable and a dinner salad going for the unheard-of price tag of $7.95. Sauteed yearling liver and onions or a half chicken come in at $6.50 for a full-course dinner with soup or salad, pickles, bread and butter, two sides and desserts. Let it be known that dessert is Jell-O or pudding and that, according to a waitress, “there are no stewed tomatoes, this isn’t the South.”
A trip to Casino brings up the inevitable question of portion versus value, one long associated with deli culture. You do not go to a deli for small plates.
Pisa-style towering sandwiches, all-you-can-eat relish bars where multiple varieties of pickles keep company with hotel pans of sauerkraut, potato, macaroni and tomato and cucumber salads, and little kid-fantasy-sized desserts are the stuff that makes Jewish delis legendary. Describing the portions as generous is, well, not generous enough.
Not content to serve a regular bowl of soup, Hymie’s Deli in Merion has tailored its menu to embrace this style of excess, er, generosity. Sure, there are bowls of chicken and rice, chicken noodle, and matzo ball soup on the menu, but why order just one when you can have the Mish Mash, a bowl with the circumference of a hubcap housing every iteration of Jewish culinary-style penicillin, including, of course, a single but very serious yet tender kreplach. Price tag? $5.95.
Laura Frangiosa is the co-owner of The Avenue Delicatessen, a new-school hybrid of the Italian and Jewish delicatessen traditions, in Lansdowne. Taking inspiration from her own Italian-deli-owning grandparents and her husband’s born-and-bred predilection for Jewish deli, she’s come up with a modernized concept that appeals to her multigenerational, west-of-West Philly base: a deli that embraces a very specific and totally comforting palate, offering up both familiarity and value.
The Avenue’s best sellers are Frangiosa’s house-cured corned beef, a Jewish wedding soup that has veal meatballs, escarole and bubbeapproved matzo balls in a garlicky chicken broth, and slices of Jewish apple cake. It’s comfort food.
“It’s totally not glamorous,” says Frangiosa of her nearly year-old deli-cum-neighborhood clubhouse. “It’s a specific thing. You crave these things: salty, sour, crunchy. The Jewish deli encompasses all of those things as well as the Italian deli It’s not macaroni and cheese, not that macaroni and cheese isn’t delicious. Deli is never going to get old.”
FAMOUS 4TH STREET DELICATESSEN
700 S. 4th St., Philadelphia
CASINO DELI RESTAURANT
2425 Welsh Rd., Philadelphia
342 Montgomery Ave., Merion Station
8500 Bustleton Ave., Philadelphia
FAMOUS DELI RESTAURANT
9359 Krewstown Rd., Philadelphia
THE AVENUE DELICATESSEN
27 N. Lansdowne Ave., Lansdowne