Corned beef and pastrami are really part of my DNA. My mom cooked a corned beef she learned to cook from her mom, in Brooklyn (when Brooklyn was more of a slum than hipster central). And my dad knew his brisket too, though that's a more complicated story.
Like most first-generation Jews who made it to New York, my dad grew up poor. But at least his family of six, crammed into a puny apartment in the Bronx, lived above the grocery cum deli they managed to open. And my dad partly credits the sweat labor he put into the deli, as a kid, for the abiding sense of industry that has never flagged.
So I decided to take my dad, now 94 and still revising new editions of his books, to Stalzy's Deli because word is they were staking their reputation on serving the real New York deli sandwiches my dad knows better than anyone.
We were both impressed with the deli itself. The airy L-shaped dining room on Atwood is a beauty, punctuated by a long cherrywood counter, ceiling beams, big coolers filled with cream sodas, and pebbly mosaic floors. The whole place exudes a sense of history, and gravitas.
The big drum-roll of a question, though, was whether the deli meats would offer something that isn't available anywhere in Madison. And the simple truth is I've never had a corned beef or pastrami sandwich in town that came close to what a real corned beef or pastrami sandwich should be. At least it was clear that Stalzy's co-owner, Neil Stalboerger, was up for the challenge. Having worked as a sous chef at two of Madison's best restaurants, Lombardino's and Sardine, the man took his cooking, and his mission, seriously.
And in fact, Stalzy's artisanal, sincere attempt at authenticity (most of the baked goods here are made on site, and the pickling is done in-house, too) was obvious from our first bites. Stalzy's potato pancakes were a bit more crepe-like than a real latke but still had a true potatoey ta'am (taste) and made for a great value (my dad plowed through all four). A plate of smoked salmon spread served with halved bialys was a lot of food for the money and an elegant plate (though my dad said, "That's not a bialy I recognize"). And a roast beef and muenster sandwich piled high with horseradish mayo was a textbook roast beef sandwich.
But back to the deli's real raison d'etre. The pastrami on rye came first. The pluses: the pastrami was served on a fine, dense, seeded rye, was clearly sliced off a fresh brisket (unlike the leathery pre-packaged pastrami that most local diners serve), and had a rousing flavor. The only minus: The slices were cut too thick and were a bit tough.
The corned beef, on the other hand, was the first corned beef I've tasted in town that wasn't a clump of fatty, chewy, gristly meat. Just the opposite. Stalzy's corned beef was velvety and cooked properly, so that the very thin slices crumbled between the slices of rye and almost melted in the mouth.
The only downside: The corned beef wasn't seasoned enough (even salt would help), so it was oddly tasteless. Corned beef traditionally is pickled in brine and then cooked by simmering; what seemed to be lacking was enough coarse salt and seasoning in the brine. "It's a very laid-back corned beef," my dad politely pronounced.
But clearly Stalzy's is almost there. If they combine the pastrami brining and the corned beef texture they will come up with the perfect deli sandwich. My dad and I will be hungrily waiting.