the Capital Region Yearns for More Ethnic Delis!
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We’ve been living in the Capital Region of New York State for almost 24 years., and I really don’t have a lot of complaints. Oh sure, the Route 7 East interchange to the Northway (87N) is a drag at rush hour. Between 4pm and 6pm it clogs up and slows to a crawl to be sure. 87N, or the “Northway” heading south between 7am and 8:30am can also be an exercise in futility considering that there is almost always traffic. (If there’s snow or rain, then it becomes a parking lot, It must be that people from the Capital Region are not that used to driving in wintry conditions….ahem.) However, if you want to live anywhere that literally has any opportunities to make a living, then traffic is an unfortunate but necessary by-product of an area with a robust economy.
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People here in the Capital Region get the willies when they even think about sitting in Northway traffic, however, compared to the Beltway in Washington, D.C., or the traffic in Northern New Jersey, Long Island, New York City, or Los Angeles, this is a temporary inconvenience at worst. If only people knew how to drive!?!?! (Albany Times Union)
I’ve also in many ways tried to move past the attitude that so many “downstaters” possess that goes like this: “The pizza and bagels in the Capital Region are nuttin’ like da stuff we have down in “Lon Gisland” or “da City,” or “New Joisey” so fugettaboutitt!” I’m not saying the pizza and bagels are better up here either, since that would be factually inaccurate and the first sign of Alzheimer’s. (Actually, doctors will often ask you the following questions if they believe you to be suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease.)
Who’s the president of the United States?
What’s the day of the week?
What season is it?
Can you count down from 100
Do you acknowledge that the best pizza and bagels come from the Metropolitan area?
(Interestingly, just about a year ago, if you were a doctor testing somebody for Alzheimer’s disease, and you asked them who the president of the United States was, and they answered “Donald Trump!” you would have told that person’s family, “I’m sorry, the brain deterioration has already begun, I’m afraid there’s nothing we can do for him.”
As a human of sound mind and body, I have already stated that the pizza and bagels here in the Capital Region are inferior to the almost limitless choices for both of these crowd pleasers that one has at their fingertips in the New York City, Long Island, and New Jersey areas. However, inferior doesn’t have to mean poor quality. The fact is, the quality of both the pizza and bagels in the Capital Region has been on the rise for several years now. There are two Clifton Park establishments alone that have upped the game regarding pizza and bagels for this area. I can actually now introduce these “staples” to my downstate friends and family without having to wince as they bite into these products so closely associated with the downstate region.
Two great establishments here in Clifton Park, Uncommon Grounds and Caputos have elevated the art of bagels and pizza to a level just below those found in downstate. Uncommon Grounds is of course no stranger to the Capitol Region, having already opened up locations in Saratoga Springs and Albany. They have what I believe are by far the best bagels in all of upstate New York, and now they are hawking their wares in Clifton Park, and I for one am ready to kvell over this development and major cultural victory for our suburban utopia.
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Full disclosure, this is the Uncommon Grounds in Albany, but the quality found inside is what counts. Big, fresh bagels that are crunchy on the outside and doughy on the inside. However, don’t bother looking for bialys or salt sticks or pletzels, this isn’t Borough Park or Forest Hills you know. (Times Union)
As for Caputos, their downstate “street-cred” comes from the fact that the owner’s are from Long Island. Caputos has about 10 different types of pizza on display, great soups, salads, garlic knots, and Sinatra wafting through the establishment. The only thing they’re missing is Geno’s Italian Ices, but hey, Rome and for that matter, North Massapequa wasn’t built in a day.
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Caputos knows what a downstate pizza should look and taste like. There are other good pizza places in the Capital Region, but none capture the essence of my days as a Long Islander quite like Caputos. (Times Union)
While the Capital District has made tremendous strides regarding pizza and bagels, there is one area where we are still laboring to catch up to the Metropolitan area, and that is in the arena of ethnic delis. What is an ethnic deli you ask? Well, allow me to break it down for you. There is as follows:
The German Deli
The Italian Deli
The Jewish Deli
While I don’t doubt for a minute that every ethnicity possesses their own particular style of delicatessen, the above mentioned delis are the staples from which all other delis take their nod. The word itself is a curious one, and like so many other great things about America, it is of foreign origin. The word delicatessen is considered a German “loanword,” and it is the plural of the word delikatesse. It first appeared in English in 1889, (It is generally considered by most historians to be the single greatest achievement of President Benjamin Harrison’s administration.) and was actually a “loanword” from French meaning “delicious things to eat.” Sacre’ bleu! I couldn’t agree more.
Growing up on Long Island in the 1970s and ’80s, particularly in North “Matzoh-Pizza,” you would think that most of the delis would either be Italian or Jewish, but instead most were of the German variety. The German deli, unlike the Italian version, is less of a grocery store, and more of a convenience store. The Jewish deli is really just a restaurant, since nobody goes in to one to buy cold cuts, especially when you consider the price. These delis are not to be confused with butcher shops, although some butcher shops also double as delis. One of the closest things we have here in Clifton Park to an Italian deli is Fred the Butcher. Fred’s is the “gold standard” when it comes to “butchering” here in the Capitol Region, and has the best non-Kosher meat north of New York City. However, you can also get cold cuts, buy groceries, get a sandwich, and deli type delicacies there as well.
Best butcher: Fred the Butcher, Clifton Park. Photo: John Carl D’Annibale, Albany Times Union / 00031954A
I think that Fred the Butcher should adopt the Steely Dan classic, Black Cow as their official theme song. (Times Union)
The German deli can be found pretty much in every strip mall on Long Island, as well as every town along the various Long Island Railroad stations across the south shore. A German deli usually consists of the following staples:
Excellent hero sandwiches as well as an abundance of Kaiser Rolls – (Get it? “Kaiser,” German, World War One?? Actually, as a historical footnote, during World War One, America briefly changed the name of the Kaiser Roll to “Freedom Buns.”
Cold Cuts galore – This would include liverwurst, krakauer, gelbwurst, and ring bologna, plus all of those cheeses like gouda, and Limburger. (Limburger smells like Goring’s jock-strap.)
German Potato Salad – That’s the one without mayo
Wise Potato Chips – I don’t know why, but these places always have Wise products.
Yoo-hoo – It’s a chocolate milk drink that doesn’t have to be refrigerated. Leave it to the Germans.
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Perhaps the best treat available at the traditional Long Island German deli is the classic bacon, egg and cheese on the Kaiser roll. You won’t find it made better anywhere. (New York Times)
As I stated earlier, many times we confuse the Italian deli with the Italian butcher. There’s nothing wrong with doubling up like the afore-mentioned Fred’s. However a good Italian deli should be teaming with all of the good things that one can get at a German deli, plus all of the tastes that we have come to enjoy regarding downstate and New Jersey Italian cuisine. A good Italian deli should be able to provide you with top quality items, such as…
Fresh mozzarella – A tomato and mozzarella salad or fresh mozzarella on a fried and breaded chicken cutlet on that good semolina roll, that’s where genius meets delectable.
Great Heros – Not subs, or grinders, or hoagies, but an Italian hero! Ba-da-bing!
Meatballs and Sausage – Purchase them cooked or raw, it’s better than anything you can make at home.
Antipasto – Italian delis have all sorts of salads that I can barely identify that usually contain things like mushrooms, and artichokes, and peppercini, and all of the stuff my half-Italian wife loves.
Butter Cookies – They come in all sorts of varieties, and I usually associate them with holidays and funerals. The cookie makes both of these events markedly more enjoyable.
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My wife will often refer to Italian delis as Italian “Pork stores.” I wonder where she gets that idea from? (Hoffman Collection) .
In the Long Island, New York City, Westchester County, and Northern New Jersey area, there are literally too many great Italian delis to count, but about a year ago my great friends from SUNY Oswego, Chris and Nadia D. introduced me to what has to be the “Godfather” of all Italian delis. A grand place, on a par with the Taj Mahal, or the Louvre in Paris, (If either of those dumps sold capicola) found in Marlboro, New Jersey called Carluccio’s of Marlboro and Brooklyn. Just as the descendents of Jor-El must bow before General Zod, all other Italian delis must kneel before this incredible deli of kings. I’m not sure after you’ve entered Carluccio’s that you would ever enter another Italian deli so long as you live. I certainly can’t think of a reason why you’d want to.
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The bustle of a successful Italian deli. Carluccio’s makes every day a celebration…as long as your celebration includes a cured meat with a high fat content. (Hoffman Collection)
Carluccio’s makes over 300 kinds of heros, but as anybody who has ever walked out of a Subway feeling like their quality of life has just taken a turn for the worse knows, it’s all about the bread. At Carluccio’s, the bread is given more care and thought than most parents put in to the raising of their own children. (Actually, a little benign neglect shown towards children today might be just what the doctor ordered, especially when you consider all of the “helicopter parenting” that you see today. It hasn’t exactly turned out a robust generation. Meanwhile, showing just the right amount of love and attention like the kind that Carluccio’s puts into their bread produces sandwich after sandwich of the highest quality.)
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You’ve come a long way Brooklyn. The mere mention of the word used to signify crime and gangs, now it means quality of the highest order. I wonder if Ottumwa, Iowa will ever enjoy a similar resurgence. (Hoffman Collection)
In the interest of full disclosure, I’m definitely one of those guys who likes free stuff. Anytime a supermarket, or even a small establishment like Carluccio’s provides its customers with a free sample of, well, just about anything, I’m going to get excited. However, as with everything else, Carluccio’s took the idea of the “free sample,” and turned it into a tsunami of taste and abundance. Let’s put it this way, I almost told my friend Chris to forget about lunch, I was completely full when we left with our “lunch,” and I am not a man who fills up easily.
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This display serves as just a hint of the many free samples that the good people at Carluccio’s provides for their customers while their order is being prepared. You will notice, these aren’t just little nibbles. They overload you with samples before you even know what you want to order. Simply marvelous. (Hoffman Collection)
If you have a kid who’s hyperactive, or if you suffer easily from sensory overload, then Carluccio’s is not for you. Between the food, the signs with all of your hero choices, and the various schtick, plus the Italian music piped through the store, you could easily suffer a seizure. However, if I could choose a way to die….
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For many, this is more reading than they do in an entire year. (Hoffman Collection)
Finally, there is the Jewish deli. The Jewish deli as I stated earlier is not really a grocery store the way the German and Italian delis are, but an actual restaurant. This is the one establishment that we have really failed to deliver on here in the Capital Region. Gershon’s in Schenectady makes a valiant attempt, but it’s not the same. First of all, they’ve got cheese hanging up in the restaurant. I don’t care if they’re not “kosher,” but at least go through the motions. If people want a Reuben, they can go to the diner. The Jewish “kosher” or “kosher style” deli found in the downstate and New Jersey areas is hard to find in any other parts of the country. A good Jewish deli combines very expensive over-stuffed sandwiches on rye bread consisting of fatty cured meats and awesome mustard. If you don’t have the good deli mustard, then you’ve got nothing. However, if you really want to call yourself a Jewish deli, then you better at least have the following:
Top quality corned beef and pastrami – Not too fatty, and with a good bit of salty spice
Kosher Hot Dogs – Preferably Hebrew National brand
Knishes – The square potato kind of course, but also the round kind, and the round kasha kinish. What is kasha? Um…never mind.
Jewish Deli Mustard – It’s often copied, but rarely duplicated. It makes everything great.
Pickles and Cole Slaw – Not those dill things, but sours and half-sours, the kind you used to find in barrels in supermarkets before the world became all “hygienic.” Thanks a lot Obama! Oh and also, those green ultra sour tomatoes, the one’s my father used to love.
There are many famous Jewish delis in New York City including the 2nd Avenue Deli and Katz’s on the lower East Side of Manhattan, but to me, although it may not have the fanfare of these Manhattan establishments, Ben’s Kosher Deli in Rego Park, Queens is the gold standard of Kosher delis. Ben’s has the sandwiches, the fresh rye bread, the endless pickles and cole slaw, and side dishes that will make you verklempt like you just saw Barbara Streisand break into the soundtrack of Yentl.
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The ambience may not be the Four Seasons, but as many a “Hoffman” has been known to utter, “You can’t eat ambience.” (New York Times)
Ben’s secret is out. A few years ago they were featured on Diners Drive-ins and Dives. (Although I’m not sure which of those descriptions best fits Ben’s, maybe dives?) Guy Fieri seemed right at home in this little corner of Rego Park, and was more than enthusiastic (when is he not?) to sample the goodies that makes Ben’s just what it says it is, “The Best!”
(This is sort of the New York City version of Diner’s Drive-ins and Dives. One key difference is of course that the New York guy has to throw in the price, but the accent and the sandwich is all New York City baby!!! ( You Tube)
Perhaps it’s better that we don’t try to emulate everything up here in the Albany area that one can find down in New York City and Long Island. After all, that’s what makes going back special…, and family, yeah, can’t forget about visiting family. Which reminds me, I’m going down to visit my brothers next week, and we’re going to have to eat somewhere, I’m just sayin.’
(Editor’s Note – This blog is dedicated to my father, not just because yesterday was Father’s Day, and that June 24th would have been his 89th birthday, but because the man loved Jewish deli, pizza, and bagels, and he knew good New York City/Long Island cuisine when he saw it. Dad, I promise to try a green sour tomato in your honor. Ah, who am I kidding, those things are gross.)