When I often write about saving delis, it usually occurs after a deli has closed down. Those are sad occasions, which ultimately serve to remind us all as to why we have to fight for delis to survive, to fight, and ultimately to prevail. But for the deli that’s just passed, there’s precious little we can do my friends. It is history.
Not this time.
This time we fight.
Just this past wednesday I found myself way out in the suburbs of New Jersey, in the town of Livingston, visiting a relatively new deli called Irving’s. For a month or so, one of your readers has told me to go our there repeatedly, and finally I made the journey (thanks to a friend with a car). I encountered a deli at the end of its rope.
Livingston has been hit hard by the recession, and that was blatantly apparent when we pulled into the plaza where Irving’s is housed. The anchor tenants of this big strip mall –an Office Depot, Bo Concept, and other store– had all gone out of business in the past few months. Though their signs still hung above their doors, the shelves were bare, the lights were off, and nary a soul was in sight. This was a ghost mall, one of hundreds around America, and in the corner, its neon burning bright, Irving’s held on for dear life.
“You save delis?” asked manager Marc Singer, a high energy firecracker of a man with a booming voice and thick mustache, “That’s perfect. We’re a deli in need of saving.”
A week before he’d told his customers that he had to close. Times were tough, the emptiness of the plaza had killed business, and there was simply no way to stay open. His customers, in true deli fashion, complained. “How can you close?” they asked Singer, and his cousin Michael Holst, “Where will we eat?” They pleaded and they begged, and so, against all financial sense and business orthodoxy, Irving’s has decided to stay on and fight.
“We’re continuing for strictly emotional reasons.”
These are tough times in America, and the deli business is no exception. While many older delis are doing even better, thanks to a return to comfort foods, for many working on tight margins, and still building their business, this recession is going to mean the end of business. It’s a tragedy, but a reality of the times we’re in.
But that doesn’t mean we can’t fight. It doesn’t mean we as deli lovers should just sit by, mutter a word of kaddish for these delis, and say goodnight. No sir! No madam! We have to save as many delis as possible.
First stop, Irving’s.
When they opened two years back, Singer and Holst wanted to recapture the spirit of their childhood visits to Bubbe’s place in Brighton Beach. These were delis where the meat was cut by hand, where the place oozed love, and where the products were unique. They culled a bit from places like Katz’s, Carnegie, and other lesser known New York delis, but ultimately, made the place suitable to Livingston.
The result is a wonderful evocation of why the New York deli still manages to transcend time and place, and capture out hearts.
Two years ago they opened with a flourish. The space was outfitted as a long cafeteria line, with one of Katz’s finest carver’s, Pedro, slicing beautifully dark pastrami and tender corned beef with his hands at one end, and on the other, a full selection of smoked fish, latkes, and a pickle assortment. Singer and Holst decided everything would be first class, from the pressed tin ceilings and antique lamps, to the Boylans sodas at the fountain. They sourced perfect “snap” hot dogs with a natural casing, and made sure to get the finest meats that they could find. The results got the attention of locals and deli lovers all over the Garden State. It got great reviews on sites like Chowhound and Yelp and even the New York Times.
I could see why. The pastrami had a deep, classic flavor to it: sweet, somewhat spicy, rich with aromas and the softening cushion of melting fat. Pedro carved it to perfection, as he did the brisket and corned beef. There were even creative flourishes, like the Reubenolli, a kinda baked Reuben pastry in a rye dough, much like Strombolli. It was a perfectly wrapped treat, like a sandwich with the soul of a knish, and it went beautifully with Russian dressing.
A friend who I went with ate an entire bowl of kasha varnishkas. I’m talking a big bowl.
It was damn fine deli, and to see it go would be a damn shame. We can do all the writing, praying, and complaining we want friends. But if we really want to save the deli, and Irving’s needs saving, we have to get out there, open our mouths, open our wallets, and eat our way to salvation.
575 Rt 10 E
Livingston, NJ 07039