Purists love to throw around the names Katz’s and Carnegie, as if these are the only authentic delis the world has ever known and every other place sucks on domestic prosciutto. I have to admit, I’ve absorbed these biases as truths myself.
But when I look around D.C., I don’t see many delis that resemble their famous New York cousins, places that still smoke their own meats and pickle their own cucumbers. Instead, I see a wild, wide-open landscape in which every other fried fish shack, package store, and bagel shop attaches the word “deli” to its name.
The “delis” in our area cover a maddeningly wide turf, from Pumpernickels Bagelry and Delicatessen and Mid-City Fish, Seafood & Deli (1418 14th St NW, 202-332-4068) to Vace Italian Delicatessen and Parkway Deli and Restaurant. And that doesn’t even include sandwich shops like Booeymonger or everyone’s current fave, Taylor Gourmet on H Street NE.
So what gives? Which is a real deli?
It would seem that, technically speaking, all of them could be delis, even those sandwich shops if they happen to peddle superior house-made (or fine imported) meats, cheeses, and other products. The deli classification essentially depends on two things: the quality of the products and the staff’s knowledge of those products.
Here’s the definition of “delicatessen,” according to my beloved Larousse Gastronomique: “A shop, or department in a store or supermarket, selling high-quality, luxury food and/or specialist products. The word, meaning delicacies, originated in Germany in the 18th century. Foods may be specific to one country, in which case regional specialties rarely available in general grocery departments are usually an important feature. International food specialties are more common, with canned, dried and preserved products, including unusual herbs and spices, complemented by cheeses, cooked meats, pates and other prepared items. A range of excellent marinated foods, salads, pastries and sauces or dips frequently feature in contemporary delicatessens. High-quality breads and cakes are often sold. Fine wines, liqueurs and spirits, as well as confectionery, may be on offer.
“With the growth in popularity of delicatessen foods and a wide range of such outlets now open, it is important to distinguish between those selling a range of prepared and slightly unusual foods and others providing true quality. Those running and working in a good establishment (or department) will have detailed knowledge of the products they sell, the suppliers, and other foods of the same type. They will usually advise on the preparation, serving and accompaniments for their products. Many superior delicatessens offer a hamper service or prepare culinary gifts to order.”
I have to say, given this definition, we don’t have a lot of real delis in D.C.
Photo by Permanently Scatterbrained