Delicatessen is a beautiful word. According to the OED, it is first defined as “delicacies or relishes for the table,” from the German word Delikatessen, on loan from the French word délicatesse. Its second, and perhaps more common definition, is “a delicatessen shop.” While this is often shortened to the more familiar and friendly “deli,” I really love the full word with all of its delicate sounds and flavors. Saying it is like eating an amuse-bouche, tickling the palate and heightening one’s taste for what’s to come. The full word evokes the wonder and feeling of one of its earliest recorded descriptions, as “a house which abounds in foreign dainties of all sorts.”
For those of you who have been to Philadelphia’s Famous 4th Street Delicatessen, “dainty” is not quite the first word that comes to mind. Perhaps you think “bold,” “extreme,” or as a friend puts it, “meat, huge, and fantastic.” This is as much a matter of the delicacies’ size (towering sandwiches, tureens of soup, and platters of cake) as it is of their flavor (glistening pastrami, smoked fish, invigoratingly vinegared salads, full-bodied sweet and sour cabbage soup), all delivered in a bright white-and-black tiled storefront. The sandwiches may be rather expensive (especially if you order the “zaftig” size), but they will stuff two people with enough leftovers for another day or two, depending on whether you like your corned beef on rye, in eggs, or in a stuffed baked potato.
Today, we split the kippered salmon salad sandwich, which came on a bagel with cream cheese, lettuce, tomato, and red onion. I didn’t know what to expect–would it be too mayonnaisey? Too fishy? Overwhelmingly smoked? None of these proved to be correct; instead, we received a revelation of a sandwich. The fish “salad’ was light and fluffy, as close to a cloud (or cotton candy) as hot-smoked salmon can get (which I assure you is a good thing). The cream cheese and onion bagel provided just the right touch of umami-laced bite. We each took out about half of the salmon, squirreling it away for a most excellent breakfast tomorrow. Here’s a cross-section of the sandwich:
Perhaps my favorite thing about Famous Fourth Street Delicatessen is its promise of plenty, from the long enumerations of the menu to the cakes waiting in the counter at back, from the four-course meal you get when you order your one sandwich (pickled salad! bread! SANDWICH with side! free cookie!) to the ways you can stretch the generous amounts of meat you get between your slices of bread. It’s fun and casual while also serving up seriously quality food, a house where all sorts of foods abound. I’d highly recommend it if you’re ever in Philly — every time I stop by, I think man! why don’t I come here all the time? Which is a nice feeling to keep experiencing, don’t you think?
Famous 4th Street Delicatessen. 700 S 4th St & 38 S 19th St. Philadelphia, PA.