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All in a Good Deli's Work!

August 25, 2005 By:
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Zach McMan, grandson of restaurant owner Steve Stein, offers danish to customers Donna Glickstein and her daughter, Ariel.
Chef Matt Becker remembers the first time he asked his boss for schmaltz to make a signature Jewish dish.

“I learned a lot of Jewish cuisine through my mother and grandmother,” explains Becker, the chef of Steve Stein’s Famous Deli & Restaurant in Northeast Philadelphia, who grew up not too far from the Krewston Road landmark. “So when I was asked to make a 100 pounds of kasha and bowties, I knew that traditionally, it was made with chicken fat and onions.

“I asked Steve for the chicken fat and … ,” continues the chef, pausing to look over at restaurateur Steve Stein, owner and operator of the establishment, which celebrated its one-year anniversary earlier this summer.

Stein, in turn, shakes his head up and down, a sly smile arching across his face at the memory of such time-honored traditions. Still, silence ensues, leaving you to guess what the response was from someone running a restaurant in these health-conscious times.

After a few laughs from both men, Becker leans forward in his seat in the establishment’s private room — set up neatly for a function later that day — to tell the end of the story: “I got the chicken fat.”

And, he goes on, “it really does make a difference. We do things traditionally here.”

And yet, the Famous Deli & Restaurant — so named for the neighboring full-service delicatessen that abuts the eatery, and has been in operation since 1959 — just as emphatically bends the rules in its selection of offerings.

Describing the restaurant’s menu as a kind of “Jewish fusion,” Becker underscores the vision behind Stein’s operation.

“We have salmon topped with whitefish imperial, as opposed to crab imperial,” he says. “We had, at one time, Reuben quesadillas,” a twist on the old deli staple of corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut on rye, using a tortilla for the bread.

Stein, an imposing presence in the 15,000-square-feet facility, greets his customers with a hearty handshake and sometimes a hug, then dutifully notes that the deli hasn’t left the Stein enterprise.

It’s figuratively all still there, from the pounds of cured meat that customers order for their Friday-afternoon jaunts down to the Jersey shore to the slabs of smoked fish requested by those in the main dining room. It’s also literally still there: Everything can be had at the deli counter — from kugels and knishes to salads and sauerkraut.

“It was a deli,” relates Stein about the transformation from Stein Boys Famous Deli, a family operation that began almost 50 years ago on Bustleton Avenue and moved to Krewston Road in 1969. “And it still is, but we also serve the deli fare here.”

“Here” is the bistro-like atmosphere of the restaurant that seats 220, and has vintage movie posters adorning the walls.

It’s an impressive change for a brunch, lunch and dinner stop that little more than a year ago occupied just 7,000 square feet.

To celebrate that venture, Stein is giving 10 percent of customers’ checks to the charity of their choice in the month of December.

“Anybody they want,” says Stein. “From their synagogue to the JCC.”

When asked why he embarked on the expansion, which cost $1 million to actualize, Stein reports dryly that “he lost his mind.”

Then, with a chuckle, he replies: “It’s just something you build on.”

“I wanted a neighborhood restaurant,” he continues. “I thought it’s a new, unique style. I wanted to create another type of customer, besides what we had.”

He readily points out that he and his staff of more than 80 cooks, busboys and waiters have largely succeeded — the old-timers from the Northeast’s Jewish environs still come in droves for Sunday morning lox and bagels, but so do the younger second- and third-generation Russian immigrants. The Northeast’s new crop of non-Jewish citizens also flock to the place, as do the professionals who grew up in the neighborhood but now live in Huntingdon Valley.

One Italian couple, sitting in a booth for an early dinner at 4 in the afternoon, reveal that they visit the restaurant at least three times a week.

“We’re here all the time,” says Sandy Palermo as her husband, Mike, lingers over a mushroom-barley soup. “Tonight, I’m having the tilapia, but usually I get half a broiled chicken.”

Turning to the side, Palermo adds in a whisper: “I also go to my hairdresser down the street and stop in here. Don’t tell my husband, but they have the best doughnuts.”

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