Baltimore glimpses: The day of the deli


SAD TO say, most of the great old delis that gave Baltimore so much of its character and helped to define city life, are gone. But the haunting aromas of warm rye bread, hot corned beef, sizzling pastrami, mustard and pickle barrel brine live on in memory.

Nates and Leon's traced its origins to 1937, when Nathan Herr and his friend, Leon Shaivitz, neither of whom knew anything about the restaurant business, opened a deli at North and Linden avenues. But they knew this: If you build better sandwiches, they will come. And they did, 24 hours a day. Doctors came, along with chiefs of industry; so did strippers and show-biz types.

Nates Herr used to say, "It wasn't the people or the hours that made us so popular; it was the food!" Remember No. 3 -- corned beef, Russian dressing and cole slaw on rye? No way to beat it.

Unless it was Nates and Leon's own legendary chicken salad, turkey, tongue and pastrami in dizzying combinations; and mountainous pastries. Strawberry short cake. Napoleons. Chocolate eclairs.

Chicken salad to die for

When the old place went on the auction block in 1967, auctioneer Leon Zalis opened the bids, saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, hold back your tears." (There is a second generation Nates and Leon's at Howard and Pratt streets. Good as it is, it ain't the old Nates.)

Ballow's at 2115 W. North Ave. gave the world what it now takes for granted, the formidable hot dog-and-bologna combination. In this creation, grease from the bologna mixes with the grease from the hot dog, and both find their way into the bread to form an unforgettable aroma, taste and aftertaste -- and 200 points on your cholesterol count.

When you eat the combo today, eat it in memory of Nathan Ballow. In 1956 Ballow's became Mandell-Ballow at Reisterstown Road and Rogers Avenue, but that is another story.

According to Barry Kessler, curator of the Jewish Museum of Maryland, "Sussman and Lev's was probably the first full-scale delicatessen restaurant in Baltimore, and one of the longest lived and best known."

Founded in 1922 at 923 E. Baltimore St., the smallish neighborhood deli was renovated and expanded and began to attract people from all over town.

The number and complexity of their sandwiches is legendary. An early menu offers lox and cream cheese, spiced beef, salami and chopped liver, all washed down with almond smash soda. Sussman and Lev drew a standing-room-only lunch crowd from the industrial plants then flourishing in East Baltimore. Those plants disappeared in the 1950s, and so did Sussman and Lev's.

On Saturdays, you were lucky to get in at Awrach and Perl on Howard Street in the heart of the retail district. Their menu, of which H. L. Mencken was a devotee, offered 16 omelets, 47 sandwiches and servings of herring and chopped liver. Hilda Perl Goodwin reminisced that in its glory days before it closed in 1944, Awrach and Perl was "reportedly the largest purchaser of hot dogs in Baltimore."

Attman's of Lombard Street survives, thanks to the gods who love old delis. The place is as it was in the 1920s -- the corned beef on the slicer, the pickle in the brine, hand-scrawled names of sandwiches slapped in wild disorder on the walls.

In memory of all the great delis that have come and gone, you should find the deli nearest you -- there are still some good ones out there -- and order a heartburn-on-rye.

And don't hold the mustard.

Gilbert Sandler writes from and about Baltimore.

Pub Date: 5/19/98

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