Just days before his kosher delicatessen, Ben & Izzy’s, opened for business in Toronto in April, Dino Venasio pulled a giant smoked brisket from his steamer and laid it on the cutting board. As vapors laden with garlic, coriander, cloves, fennel and half a dozen other spices blanketed the small space, Venasio began slicing methodically, slipping past the peppercorn crust to reveal the juicy, tender, crimson flesh.
Outside, a crowd began to gather, peering through the glass window, first with curiosity, and then, with the lunch hour upon them and a realization that the door was still locked, an increasing sense of frustration. They knocked on the glass, shook the door, mouthed queries and curses through the window and pointed at their watches, asking “When? When do you open?” as though demanding the very day and hour of messianic salvation itself.
A powerful revolution in Jewish delicatessens has occurred recently. After decades of watching delis decline, a number of visionary delicatessens, owned by secular Jews, opened around North America, with the idea to return deli to its roots.
They ditched the standard brands and sourced unique products, making as much as they could from scratch, from lox and bagels to schmaltz and pastrami. It began in the 1990s at Saul’s, in California, found a footing in Portland, Ore., at Kenny & Zuke’s, and continued quickly apace, from Caplansky’s in Toronto to Brooklyn’s Mile End, San Francisco’s Wise Sons, DGS Delicatessen, in Washington, D.C., and on and on….
These delis are the reason you see other restaurants selling homemade pastrami nowadays. Thanks to them, Jewish food is being embraced by a whole new generation and rediscovered by those who had previously left it for dead (or for the sake of cholesterol).
Up until now, however, not a single one of these new delicatessens has been kosher, and for observant Jews, the presence and popularity of these new delis, which I like to call “roots delis,” has generated every emotion, from jealousy to anger.
“My savta [grandmother] saw the family photos on our wall in an article in the L.A. Jewish Journal and called my father right away,” recalled Evan Bloom, co-owner of Wise Sons. “‘How could you let him hang those photos in the restaurant that’s not kosher? It’s disrespectful!’”