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The Last of Toronto’s Great Deli Men

This morning I attended the funeral of Yitz Penciner. Yitz was the last of his generation of Toronto’s Great Deli Men. For 22 years he worked and managed Shopsy’s Deli before opening his own eponymous place at Avenue and Eglinton. He sold that around 2000. He was “The Godfather of Deli” and my mentor.

When I opened my place in the Monarch in 2008, David Sax, author of James Beard Book Award winning “Save the Deli” suggested I invite Yitz for lunch. Yitz showed up with his accountant, Harold. It was a Wednesday and it was very busy. I remember corralling the last couple of seat for them. Geddy Lee was standing at the bar eating a sandwich.

Yitz looked around in astonishment. “Who are these people,” he asked no one in particular. “What’s going on?” What was going on was something of a phenomenon. My deli in a dive bar touched a nerve and attracted immense media attention both traditional and online. He didn’t quite get it maybe because he’d been so close to deli his whole life. I don’t know. Certainly he was happy for me and happy that someone was trying to carry on the tradition even if it wasn’t in the traditional way.

Yitz had a deliberate way of speaking. As if he’d considered each of his words before offering them. As if you’d be wise to pay attention. Maybe even take notes. I’m not sure how exactly our relationship developed into a mentorship but I’m beyond grateful it did. Actually, that’s not true. I remember the exact moment:

I bumped into Yitz and Mrs. Yitz (the lovely Bernice Penciner) while I was filling my basket at Loblaw’s on St Clair with boxes of Matzo Meal. “You’re going to make matzo balls,” Yitz said. “Here, take this”. He reached into his shirt pocket and pulled out a yellow card with ‘From the Pocket of Yitz Penciner’ printed at the top. Amazing. “This recipe was given to me by a borscht-belt chef 20 years ago,” he said. “It works every time.” And he proceeded to write the recipe for his wonderful matzo balls. Of course I still have that card.

What I love about that moment was two things:
1. that even 8 years after selling his deli he remembered the exact recipe and
2. that he would offer it to me without hesitation or second thought

Yitz, you see, was a Mensch.

I called him to walk through the new space on College street with me before the reno. When we opened he used to come for lunch every couple of weeks and insist on paying but then he’d come back a few days later and we’d sit together and he’d tell me everything he saw that could be improved. His advice was immeasurably important.

  • “When you have your friends over to your house,” he said “they never pay. When they come to your place of business they pay. If they’re real friends they’ll want to pay.”

  • “Always walk around with a pot of coffee in your hands”

  • “Use the best ingredients you can”

  • “Shepherd’s Pie is the worst dish ever invented because it makes cooks lazy”

  • “Use fresh sliced bread”

  • “Train your slicers to only handle the meat with their slicing knife and meat fork”

  • “Remember people”

  • “The secret to my success was Mrs. Yitz”

There was more too. Some very specific tips you don’t need to know but that were and are important to me. He gave me all kinds of advice but more importantly he kept coming in. And eventually he stopped giving me advice. “I was in with Mrs. Yitz a few times and you weren’t here,” he said “everything was great.” His approval and acceptance meant more to me than words can express. I knew I earned those things and that he was proud of me.

One day Bernice left her sweater at the deli and I insisted on driving it to their house the next day. We sat in their kitchen and talked for hours. Not about restaurants but about family. Mostly about their family. They were just the most lovely people. I loved seeing how they were together. How they cared for and about each other.

The last time I saw Yitz was this past August. My nephew Angus read from the torah for his Bar Mitzvah at Holy Blossom synagogue in the upstairs chapel. They were devoted members of that shul and were there in that smaller chapel. Just now it occurs to me that they probably chose to be in that chapel on that day because they figured I’d be there too. Maybe I’m just flattering myself. I always thought it was a coincidence but after hearing the rabbi speak at the funeral today I now think they planned it.

Sitting in the row behind me, Yitz tapped me on the shoulder. They gave me the kind of greeting reserved for people you know you truly like. The kind where eyes light up, smiles beam and embraces are just so natural. We chatted for a few minutes after the service.

What a wonderful man he was. I will miss him for sure but his legacy will live on in me and everyone he influenced. After all, he taught me how to be a Deli Man.

This blog originally appeared on the Caplansky’s Deli website.

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