The kitchen is a magnet for career-shifters, and I thought I'd witnessed them all - until I happened into the Avenue Delicatessen in Lansdowne.
Over the years, I've written about everyone from disillusioned Greek scholars and burned-out money traders to microbiologists who eventually realized their true passion was making soup.
Musicians? I could put together a funky marching band (and a good one, at that) with all the singing and guitar-slinging cooks I've covered. So no, the fact that Laura Frangiosa toured from Philly to Switzerland as part of a garage-rock girl band isn't unique - even if Lowlita Shalita is a stage name worth holding on to.
Another of Frangiosa's previous titles, though - as a certified "Bra Diva" and protégé of Linda "the bra lady" Becker - is one I've yet to encounter.
"Sizing people for bras is my hidden talent," she says. "Eighty percent of women wear the wrong size."
After biting into the tall, pink stack of Frangiosa's Reuben, however, I believe she's finally found her true calling in corned beef. It's lean without being dry, and so aromatic with juniper, garlic, allspice, mustard seed, and bay from its 10-day cure, I'd say that at least 80 percent of our other local deli Reubens have been wearing the wrong corned beef, too.
Of course, the lengthy process of corning beef in-house - after a week-plus pickling in vats the size of small bathtubs, the meat is braised, chilled, then trimmed - is a chore most modern delis no longer have time for.
But it's high time the aging institution of the American deli got a scratch makeover. And while Philly does have a couple of worthy, old-school champions (Famous Fourth Street Deli and Hershel's), Frangiosa and her partners, husband Josh Skaroff and friend Brian Flounders, have tackled the genre with a youthful zeal and a quirky, multiethnic twist.
The Avenue, opened in the spring in a tidy, rehabbed Lansdowne storefront that had been the long-running Doyle's Deli, is a genuine deli mash-up - one part Jewish (Skaroff's family), one part Italian (Frangiosa's family.) It sounds like a gimmick. But when I bit into an arancini and saw the molten core of corned beef-studded Swiss and sauerkraut oozing from the risotto ball's center, I knew this was 100 percent from the heart - with a side of Russian dressing.
Ditto for the "Jewish Wedding soup," which pairs tender matzo balls and little veal meatballs as kindred spheres of comfort in golden chicken broth, along with wilted escarole. What makes it so convincing, though, are the outstanding matzo balls - my ideal balance of density and fluff - flecked with dill, leavened with whipped egg whites, and enriched with schmaltz skimmed from the slow-cooked stock. With one bowl of soup, grandmas on both sides of the aisle would be proud.
The Bala Cynwyd-raised Frangiosa comes by her culinary chops on the job, having worked her way through multiple vendors at the Ardmore Farmers Market to a stint in fish sales for Samuels & Son, time on the line at Bistrot La Minette, Whole Foods catering, and as the resident chef at Cook. (Skaroff and Flounders are both in computer engineering.)
The Avenue's menu, though, is an exercise in classic comforts, produced with attention to detail and very few shortcuts. The smoked turkey is almost as notable as the corned beef. Brined and smoked over apple wood, it's moist and just smoky enough, instead of dry and salty, as many smoked birds are.
A house-cured pastrami - still not a reality - cannot be too far behind, although Frangiosa's pastrami-spiced tofu gives a clue to the work-in-progress. I found the peppery crust too sweet, although that was a minor quibble compared with the verdict from our waiter, who confessed after I'd just taken a bite that the tofu's texture "turns my stomach."
Honesty unfiltered is not always a virtue in a server (not to mention relatives - he turned out to be Frangiosa's brother-in-law.) And while the Avenue's ambitions and potential are admirable, there is still some room for polish, including service that's friendly enough, but not much more attentive than at an average diner. Having enough clean soup spoons is important when some of the best flavors come in a bowl. A spare teaspoon just doesn't cut it when you want to dive into the "peasant soup," a wonderfully simple variation on potato-leek broth greened with spinach. Like some other dishes, the seasoning of that soup could have been more assertive.
The Avenue's shortcomings as a start-up, though, are more than compensated for by the satisfaction of home cooking served from late-breakfast through early dinner with value, topping out at $14 for an entrée of Severino pappardelle tossed in short-rib ragu, topped with creamy crumbles of house-made ricotta.
Breakfast, available until 3 p.m., offers a few dishes that were worth the short drive to this inner-ring Delaware County suburb. Hash fans will love the crock of diced white and sweet potatoes with two poached eggs. Not only is it mixed with nuggets of corned beef - extra richness comes from the rendered corned beef fat used to sauté the final hash with onions and a hit of jalapeños. The Mighty Casey breakfast sandwich is a double fistful of eggs layered between rye, crispy latkes, and pancetta made nearby at 1732 Meats. Fluffy buttermilk pancakes infused with cinnamon are irresistible topped with apple cooked down in maple syrup.
At dinner, Frangiosa settles into a comfort zone of homey Italian favorites, from a spot-on chicken parmigiana with pappardelle to mushroom-filled polenta cakes topped with crumbled Italian sausage and broccoli rabe in garlic oil. Her eggplant lasagna, with paper-thin sheets of grilled eggplant layered between fresh pasta, house ricotta, and slow-cooked tomato gravy, was an impressively delicate feat of tasty casserole architecture. I would have loved the Americana burger, with its savory beef, Russian dressing, and classic fixings, if the potato bun hadn't been so big and squishy.
Frangiosa promises more Jew-talian fusions (chicken paprikash with gnocchi? Yum.) But it's enough for now to build on the bi-ethnic fundamentals of stellar corned beef and some equally great deli desserts. There is creamy cheesecake (including a pumpkin-with-gingersnap-crust winner), sublimely moist Jewish apple cake inspired by her best friend's mom (thank you, Helene Kurtz), and rich, dark-chocolate pudding that one hopes will start a better-than-Jell-O trend.
With national upgrades on everything from pizzerias to burger joints already in progress, the deli's rehab is due. And for downtown Lansdowne, at least, the Avenue Delicatessen is, in the parlance of the Bra Diva, "a perfect fit."
Next Sunday, Craig LaBan reviews Talula's Daily in Washington Square.