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'Deli Man' review: A slice of a deeper story


David "Ziggy" Gruber, right, co-owner of Kenny & Ziggy's New York Delicatessen Restaurant in Houston, seen with a customer, is the principal character in "Deli Man," a documentary about Jewish delis in North America. Photo Credit: TNS


A documentary about Jewish delis and their die-hard owners. Rated PG-13.


A fairly thin subject for a feature film, but the characters and stories have charm.



In 1931, there were more than 1,500 kosher delicatessen stores in New York City, whereas now, there are about 20 major kosher and non-kosher delis, according to the press materials for the documentary “Deli Man.” What caused the drop-off, and why do the die-hards persist? Those are the questions that Erik Greenberg Anjou attempts to answer in "Deli Man," a film brimming with nostalgia for the flavors of a bygone era.

Anjou's film is a series of chats with deli owners, many of them second- and third-generation, across North America. Iconic delis like Katz's on the Lower East Side and Canter's in Los Angeles are mentioned, but the film's focus is on lesser-known gems like Kenny and Ziggy's in -- of all places -- Houston. What about Zingerman's in Ann Arbor? Or Wolfie Cohen's now-shuttered Rascal House in South Florida? Everyone has a favorite deli, of course; Anjou can't get to them all.

The Houston-based David "Ziggy" Gruber -- he's related to the owners of the Woodro deli in Hewlett -- becomes our amiable tour guide through a niche world. He has some stories, including one in which he talked his way into London's Le Cordon Bleu institute with sheer enthusiasm (and a donation to the school's "discretionary fund"). Ziggy also has a way with words: His food is so authentic "you can taste the Diaspora," and his lox is so paper-thin "you could see an eclipse through it."

That, however, is also a fair description of this slim documentary. Anjou listens carefully to his subjects and enlists a couple of celebrity "experts" (Larry King is identified as a "deli maven"), but never dives much deeper. There's a sense that the most colorful deli owners, mostly Old World émigrés, are gone; their progeny soldier on in the face of changing tastes and rising rents.

If nothing else, "Deli Man" serves as a work of field research. It's Anjou's third film on Jewish culture and was made with funding from the Hartley Film Foundation, which supports documentaries about world religions.


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