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Each of these restaurants has a fresh but traditional approach to deli fare — house-cured and smoked meat, pillowy but crusty double-baked rye bread and pickles with just the right amount of crunch. There is an emphasis on local and sustainable practices, too. Levitt took pastrami off the menu for a few weeks when his meat distributor changed management and the beef no longer met his satisfaction. Wise Sons works with Beauty’s Bagels, a new, Jewish-style baking company, to source some of their baked goods.
In a way, these deli entrepreneurs are reclaiming the flavors of a deli they never knew — the deli of their grandparents’ and even great-grandparents’ day. Most of the delis that existed during their own childhoods, on the other hand, served processed meats in sky-high sandwiches. These were the delis ruled by quantity more than quality.
But taste memory is malleable. “I think what I tried to recreate was something that approached [an] ideal in my mind; whether that ideal existed, I have no idea. There’s a palate there that I’m trying to match — part memory and part fantasy,” Gordon said.
Each owner has also put his or her own stamp on the deli. Bernamoff, who grew up in Canada, opened a Montreal-style deli in New York; Wise Sons owners Leo Beckerman and Evan Bloom kept a Chinese chicken salad on their menu as a nod to their Southern California roots. This generation of deli owners is “transforming [the deli] in our own image,” explained Ted Merwin, the author of “Pastrami on Rye: An Overstuffed History of an American Icon.”
A rare tasting of pastrami at an event in New York in October hosted by Tablet magazine, Mile End and the ABC Home store, revealed that the blend of old, new and personal traditions in the kitchen has paid off. The pastramis — from Saul’s, Kenny and Zuke’s, Mile End and Wise Sons — were thickly sliced, glistening with fat, lightly smoky and well spiced. If it were just a matter of flavor, the future of pastrami and, by extension, deli would seem to be a bright one.
But there is more to saving the deli than a perfect pastrami sandwich. “Food is never just about food. Jewish deli was always about much more than really great tasting corned beef and pastrami,” Merwin said.