Did you know that the word delicatessen doesn’t just refer to the place, but to the food it sells? Thanks to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, now I do. The word comes from the Germans, who borrowed délicatesse from the French and tacked it onto the German verb “to eat.” Webster’s thinks that the French may have even stolen délicatesse from the Old Italian, probably about the same time that Catherine de Médicis arrived in Paris with her posse of Florentine chefs and created haute cuisine.
But the dictionary couldn’t tell me whether delicatessens were a Jewish-American institution or whether they came from a specific Eastern European tradition. So I got a bug in my bonnet, spent two days lost in fruitless research, and ended up leaving long, rambling voicemail messages for academics in New York and Texas.
The occasion for all this was the arrival of two very different delis in the East Bay. One, Frishman’s, claims to be so authentically New York that it imports delicatessen from the Old Country — Manhattan, that is.
The other, Vatran’s Flying Sausages, sells a mix of California gourmet foods and hard-to-find Romanian and other Eastern European delicatessen.
As best I could trace, delicatessens arrived in Manhattan with the third wave of Jewish immigrants, Ashkenazim who came from Eastern Europe in the 1880s.
The celebrated Carnegie Deli in New York was established 120 years ago, and its Web site claims that many of the cured and pickled meats that we think of as quintessential delicatessen fare were developed to withstand the lack of refrigeration.
Of course New York, being one of the great cultural vortices of the world, sent the deli thing spinning out across the continent, so now any place that sells a turkey and cranberry sandwich on mushy white bread considers itself a delicatessen. But much as they do with bagels, transplanted New Yorkers love to complain about the lack of authentic — what a loaded term — delis in Northern California. Every deli that arrives proclaims itself even more authentic than the last.
The owners of Vatran’s Flying Sausages don’t fling their goods about like those guys at the Pike Place Market fish stall in Seattle. Peter Vatran, who hails from western Romania, used to be in the dental business, but he returned to the family sausage business several years ago. Soon he started making sausages for friends, and then restaurants. Two years ago the business had grown so much that he and his wife opened up a deli so they could have a permanent place to sell their products.
As often as I’ve driven up and down the main stretch of East 14th Street in San Leandro, I never would have found Vatran’s just two blocks up Joaquin if it wasn’t for a tip from reader (and former restaurant critic) Robert Lauriston. Vatran’s made its home in a converted house, with a couple of patio tables in front. The inside is sunny and open, with bright yellow walls and shelves full of delicatessen. My friends and I spent a couple hours outside baking in the sun, sipping cold drinks and noshing on American-Romanian fusion sandwiches.
Before Vatran’s opened, the family traveled around the United States, and Vatran decided to re-create each region’s specialty on his sandwich menu — Reubens, muffulettas, BLTs. The barbecued beef tri-tip sandwich (Texas), served on a warmed, crusty soft roll, was tender but a little lean. But the pulled pork sandwich (North Carolina) was packed with a mound of succulent, sauce-drenched shredded meat, and the grilled pork and garlic sausage sandwich proved deeply flavorful.
The real treat is the cured meats, some of which are made in-house. For $10.50, you can get a rather large chopping board covered in your choice of Eastern European charcuterie, accompanied by tapenade bruschetta and very Romanian touches of feta cheese, slices of red bell pepper, and a plate of vegetables: brined cucumber pickles; sweet and lightly spicy pickled cherry peppers; and very tart, earthy pickled green Roma tomatoes. Our selection contained thin slices of Vatran’s own cured pork loin, which I found a little bland; his bacon roll — a luxuriously fatty, herbed swirl of pork belly; a salty, dark purple, deeply spiced Hungarian salami; and tender, delicate slices of head cheese, the marbling of meat and aspic resembling panes of stained glass. Call me German, but I really wanted a pot of pungent mustard to go with the pork loin and the head cheese. I also wanted to spend the rest of the day sampling cured meats, but dinner was only three hours away.
Though its selection isn’t huge, Vatran’s carries enough exotic tinned and jarred delicatessen — roasted peppers, tinned fish, cod-roe mousse — for you to nosh on for a couple of months. Ask the owner, and he’ll even point to you to a few hidden treasures, such as wheels of Sally Jackson’s impossibly rare, impossibly chic aged sheep- and goat’s-milk cheese wrapped in chestnut and grape leaves.
Lezlie Frishman, of Frishman’s Deli on Solano Avenue, didn’t just want to start a New York-style deli in Berkeley, she wanted the real thing. Tired of bringing bagels back from the East Coast with her, she decided to set up a bagel-import business in the East Bay. Then her idea got bigger and bigger. She moved to Brooklyn for a while, ate all over the boroughs, persuaded a bunch of small, independent vendors to sell their products to her, and now trucks in almost everything from the East Coast.
When Lezlie settled on Solano Avenue as the location, she decided to sell Ortman’s Ice Cream (actually made by Lord’s in San Leandro for Ortman’s), which Solano Avenue locals grew up eating, and entered into partnership with Harry Simonian of Berkeley Bakery, who has baked specialty cakes and other delights on Solano for many years. They opened up shop at the end of June.
Frishman’s gorgeous enameled 1930s counter is just the thing to make you viscerally, almost painfully, flash back to being four and holding your mother’s hand while the smiling giant in the white paper cap leaned over to hand you a pickle and you started crying, embarrassing your mother. The stuff behind the counter windows, too, is carefully designed to invoke New York: chopped liver, schmaltz herring, black-and-white cookies, Goldenburg’s Peanut Juice Bagels flown in from Manhattan. I wanted everything. But only after I’d mowed my way through a pastrami sandwich.
Pastrami has a long and glorious history that predates the invention of the delicatessen by a couple millennia. Since the dawn of herding, the peoples of southeastern Europe, Turkey, and the Levant have been rubbing hunks of beef or water buffalo with salt and spices, then wind-drying it. In The Food and Cooking of Eastern Europe, Lesley Chamberlain writes, “A nineteenth-century traveler described [Romanian pastrama] as ‘thin, black, leather-like pieces of meat dried and browned in the sun, and with salt and squashed flies.'” As I mentioned last week, you can find vastly improved descendants of this type of meat, sans flies, at Bosphorus in Berkeley and Bulgaria at Night in Oakland. American Jews, exerting a civilizing influence on pastrami, began to steam the meat after it was cured so that the fat and collagen melted and the meat tenderized. It is now a perfect food.
Perfection, of course, is relative. The pastrami sandwich at Katz’s in New York? Delectable. The Reuben at Langer’s Deli in Los Angeles? Orgasmic. The pastrami on marbled rye at Frishman’s? Pretty darn good. Great flavor, a little dry after it cooled. What can I say?
I can say that the smoked whitefish salad is positively dreamy, tastefully salty, and fishy, really just a cloud of whipped fish floating between two pieces of light rye. And the tongue, which looks like a long, gray slab of mystery meat when you peer at it through the glass — Frishman’s staff have surrounded it with parsley and carrots, as if that would help — is just lovely when sliced thinly and slathered with mustard. The mostly-breast chicken salad is pretty good, too, as are the two salads you get with your sandwiches: the archetypal cole slaw, all crunch and sweetness, and the piquantly mustardy, al dente potato salad. A stickler for detail, Frishman worked with a local baker to develop a proper rye bread for her imported fillings, and it’s pliant but not mushy, with a stalwart crust and assertive flavor.
While waiting for my sandwiches to arrive I salivated over the corned beef, herring in cream sauce, and housemade matzoh ball soup, but I have but one belly, and it had reserved space for a slice of Brooklyn cheesecake. It was light yet substantial, creamy without leaving your mouth gummed up, and aromatic with lemon zest.
Sadly, in its quest for authenticity Frishman’s couldn’t import the waitresses from Second Avenue Deli in New York, who are the best waitresses in the world. You just don’t see sixtysomething women in Northern California who walk around in aprons and orthopedic shoes, with jet-black bouffants and tinted Jackie-O glasses, and who greet you with a “Hellao, dwoll” containing all the weariness of the 21st century. If you do, please give them Lezlie’s number.