Prior to meeting executive chef Neil Stalboerger from Stalzy’s Deli, I had the thought process of a typical Midwestern. I thought of a deli as the deli area in the grocery store: cold cuts, tubs of macaroni salad, and slices of cheese. Neil gave me an education on delis and I think to truly appreciate Stalzy’s deli, (if you are a naive Midwesterner like myself), you may need a little deli primer.
History of Delis
The word delicatessen loosely translates to fine food. Delicatessens in Europe showcased delicacies: regional fare and imported exotic foods. These were hand-crafted, high quality dishes, ingredients, and treats. In short, when you went to the delicatessen, you were in store for a treat.
As immigrants moved to New York City, delicatessens made their appearance in the neighborhoods. In these delis, you would find foods from the homeland. These delis maintained the high quality of food but whereas the European delis imported in exotic foods from foreign lands, the New York delis imported foods from the homeland. It was a place where traditions and cultures were kept alive through food. Owners made dishes based on their family recipes and cured meat using their traditional methods. Instead of going to the deli for the exotic, people went to the deli for a slice of home.
In the present time, delis maintain a link to a distant heritage. Some cultural practices and traditions have been lost to third and fourth generation immigrants, but recipes and traditional foods provide a very physical connection to cultures, to families, and to the past. As these secrets are passed down generations through the delis, people are able to connect to their roots. It’s more than just going to the corner to get a sandwich and it’s definitely more than scooping a pre-made salad out of a plastic tub.
Stalzy’s: Continuing the Tradition
Stalzy’s Deli follows the tradition of New York delis in that it provides slices of home and history connecting East European traditions (corned beef, pastrami, borscht) with Midwestern ingredients (locally grown cabbages, beets, locally sourced meats). On top of that, executive chef Neil Stalboerger keeps his own family’s traditions alive in his cooking.
Take the sauerkraut: Neil hand shreds the cabbage and then prepares the it according to his family’s recipe in a four gallon wrought iron crock (a family heirloom given to him when he and Corbin opened the deli). After all of that, he lets the sauerkraut sit for up to 60 days until it reaches the perfect balance of flavors. This is slow food at its finest.
Each dish in the deli receives this type of care and attention to detail. If you were to look in the Stalzy’s pantry, you would find heads of cabbage, beets, flour, salt, sugar, and carrots. These are the same items that Neil found in his family’s pantry growing up. There are no shortcuts, no precut vegetables, or tubs of coleslaw. Everything is handmade, from breads to the cured meats to cold salads.
The importance of history is not lost on Neil who researches every dish that is served at the deli. This passion for research is what led him to delis in the first place. Before he makes a dish, Neil wants to understand where it came from, what was its place in the culture, and traditions surrounding it.
It’s a Deli Deli