As long as there’s a thing called pastrami—smoky, pepper-crusted, dense with tradition—we’ll always have Jewish food, a signature glory of immigrant culture. Entertainingly, the klezmer-scored Deli Man charts the history of urban eateries, nowhere near as prominent as they were during the early 20th century but still a vital link to Yiddish-accented comforts. The documentary visits perennials like Katz’s and L.A.’s Canter’s, while sitting with corner-boothed superfans like Jerry Stiller and 92-year-old Fyvush Finkel. (For every hour that you haven’t eaten, add a star to the rating above.)
The gregarious anchor of Erik Anjou’s film is thick-cheeked operator David “Ziggy” Gruber, the European-trained chef who, after cooking for the queen of England, realized he had to open a delicatessen in, of all places, Texas. Gruber’s enthusiasm for the food (he pounds a stuffed veal chop to perfection) is winning. But there’s something weirdly retro to his personality, indicative of a missed opportunity for modernity: Deli Man never touches on the recent invasion of Montreal smoked meats (purveyed in game changers like Brooklyn’s Mile End) and a new generation of Jews adapting the old for the new.
Instead, the film is content to portray classic “appetizing” as the work of defiant outliers—not exactly untrue, but only part of the story. Much like the culture that birthed it, kosher and nonkosher variations continue to evolve. Ultimately, Gruber is seen getting married to a sweet massage therapist (in his case, she has a lot to work with), implying a change of perspective, which the movie should have better integrated with its tasty subject matter.
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