Cafe Society

Our Deli Bread

Never draw to an inside straight.

Never pet a burning dog.

Never use margarine if there's butter in the house.

And never, ever call your restaurant a New York deli unless: a) It's actually within the boundaries of New York City; or b) You're from New York City yourself, as is your floor staff, your kitchen crew, hostess and counterman. In fact, everyone down to the last undocumented Haitian dishwasher must be a surly, high-strung, short-tempered New Yorker who's only working for you until his book deal/record contract/green card comes through, or her agent gets her that gig as an understudy to the Rum Tum Tugger in the road company of Cats.

If you meet the requirements of b) but your restaurant is in, say, Dubuque, Reykjavik or Denver, then your bread had better be made in-house or come from a family bakery in business for no less than three generations, and all of your deli products -- from your meats and cheeses down to the incidentals like pepperoncinis, sodas and frill picks -- should be ordered from suppliers in The City and delivered daily, without tax or interstate-transit documentation, by blacked-out Learjets landing on an unused utility runway at DIA.

Otherwise, fuggedaboutit. Painting stripes on your ass won't make you a zebra, and hanging a grainy black-and-white print of Grand Central Station on the wall won't make your place a New York deli.

Sorry, but those are the rules. And while I don't have any particular fondness for the better-known Gotham joints (why, in God's name, would I pay twelve bucks for a glorified Greek salad with John Stamos's name on it at the Stage Deli when I could go around the corner to an Armenian lunch place and pay three dollars to eat basturma with the cabbies?), rules like these are important. Without them, you risk winding up in the same fix that some allegedly Italian joints are in, now that one Italian group is actually requiring restaurants that call themselves "Italian" to prove both their lineage and the authenticity of their ingredients.

New York on 17th can't do much about its Denver address, but it gets everything else right except the attitude. The staff lacks the requisite surliness of the real New York article, and, frankly, the deli is alarmingly clean. The dining room, capable of seating even the biggest lunch rush comfortably, is painted a mustardy yellow and filled with comfortable, wrought-iron chairs of the sort that rich neighbors put out on the sundeck; the decor runs to that style-by-association theme, with framed New York Times covers, Yankees-Mets "subway series" paraphernalia and the aforementioned black-and-white art prints hanging on the walls. But the breads (aside from the rye and pizza doughs, which are made in the back) are sourced through New York bakeries, and you can taste that in the thick, heavy flavors that come from East Coast water and sea-level air pressure. The meats and cheeses are all Boar's Head, a top-shelf product used virtually everywhere (although it's not as time-consumingly genuine as the sandwich ingredients at the Carnegie Deli, which smokes, brines, ages and pickles everything right on the premises). And the owner, Danny Pisarra, is a Queens native who did the deli thing for years on Long Island before moving to Colorado. He's opened several places here in the past dozen years, including two New York Deli Ways (both closed) and the new Mendelson's Deli at 600 17th Street. But for the past four years, he and his son, Jamie -- "who's been with me since he was twelve," says Pisarra -- have focused on this spot on 17th Avenue, and they have no intention of moving.

"We see a lot of people from New York, Jersey, Connecticut in here," Pisarra says, his Queens accent still noticeable. "And a lot of people from Florida. That's our main customer, you know? And all of them say the same thing. The staff is too nice to be a New York place, and the bathrooms are too clean."

So, yeah, the Pisarras know from New York delis. They've got that necessary firsthand knowledge of the flavors and tastes they're aiming for. So when I ordered a ham-and-cheese calzone, it came stuffed with a fistful of thick-sliced ham, stretchy mozzarella and ricotta herbed with only salt and a pinch of oregano. On the side was a warm red sauce, a proper San Marzano -- sweet, acidic, slightly damp but not watery, and thick with fat lumps of tomato flesh that need never fear the blender. (The tomato is a fruit and should be treated as such in a sauce: coddled, handled gently and generally left pretty much alone, not mucked up with black pepper and spices. For some reason entirely beyond me, people seem to forget this as soon as they cross the Mississippi into the West. I blame the devious machinations of the American Salsa Advisory Council, but that's a story for another day....)

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan