July 21, 2021

Borscht Belt Delicatessen in Stockton Highlights NYC Jewish Deli Favorites

DEFINITIVE DELI: “I enjoy creating experiences for people, and I like to see people eat and enjoy themselves. In addition to being chef, I oversee the operations, and we are tweaking things every day to be sure we get it right.” Nick Liberato, owner with Mike Dalewitz and Steve Lau, of Borscht Belt Delicatessen in Stockton, is shown with one of the deli’s signature sandwiches: chopped cheese, with ground beef blend, cheddar, caramelized onions, lettuce, tomato, and mayo. (Photo by Gab Bonghi)

By Jean Stratton

Comfort and conversation, connection and culture, flavor and atmosphere; over-stuffed, piled-high delicious deli sandwiches; expertly-made egg creams; 1950s sound track vibrating in the background. Where can you find such an energizing experience?

It’s not far away!

The new Borscht Belt Delicatessen is located in the Stockton Market at 19 Bridge Street in Stockton. Just opened on June 19, it is already attracting hungry visitors who are lining up around the block to sample both its New York City-style Jewish deli atmosphere and its variety of classic deli culinary treats.

Owners Nick Liberato, Mike Dalewitz, and Steve Lau wanted to bring something unique to Stockton.

Family and Friends

“We thought there was a need for something like this in Stockton,” says Chef Liberato, who also oversees the operations. His longtime background in the food and restaurant business includes serving as “Chef to the Stars” when he opened a catering company in Los Angeles, and then as host of the popular Bar Rescue and Restaurants on Edge TV shows. The latter experiences included helping at risk bars and restaurants to regain both popularity and profits.

“I was raised in an Italian family, and I watched my mother and grandmother cook,” he recalls. “I was always interested, and realized how much a part of getting together with family and friends is centered around food.”

So how did a young man from an Italian family in Yardley, Pa., become a partner in a classic Jewish delicatessen?

He was introduced to partner Mike Dalewitz at Shir Ami Temple in Newtown, Pa., by the rabbi. Liberato’s family are members, as is Dalewitz and his family.

Looking for new business opportunities, both men saw the chance for a partnership for something special, and reached out to Steve Lau, owner of the Stockton Market. The three joined forces, and Borscht Belt Delicatessen was born.

The idea stems from the former favorite getaway area in the New York Catskill Mountains, known as the “Borscht Belt.” A summer vacation stop, especially for Jewish families, it experienced its greatest popularity in the mid 20th century.

Culture and Cuisine

Borscht refers to a soup of Ukrainian origin, made of beet root, which was brought to the U.S. primarily by Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe and Russia.

Mike Dalewitz’s family owned a number of the Borscht Belt hotels, and he was familiar with the culture and cuisine of the area.

As the Borscht Belt hotels — and also many famous NYC Jewish delis — have been disappearing due to changing times and circumstances, the partners wanted to offer a salute to the memorable days and special time of that Catskill community.

“This is a love letter to the Jewish deli and an important part of the Jewish American culture,” explains Liberato. “Community, family, and of course, food, are all part of this. Also, people are so glad to be out together again, now that the virus cases are decreasing, and things are opening up again. This is good timing for us.

“We are extremely busy. People are here every day, and we already have regulars. The response has been incredible — way more than we even hoped for. The first day we opened, we went through one thousand pounds of pastrami, and a thousand pounds of bagels! And this has happened more than once.

“Customers are coming from all over, including lots from Princeton, and we have one couple that comes in often, picks up their sandwiches, and then get on their boat for lunch on the river!”

Signature Sandwiches

Certainly, customers love the menu. House-made corned beef and pastrami and homemade matzo ball soup are big-time favorites. Signature sandwiches are named for celebrities, such as Joan Rivers, Jerry Lewis, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Special fish sandwiches including The Concord, The Raleigh, Brown’s, and The Nevele celebrate former Borscht Belt hotels. They feature everything from pastrami-cured salmon, white fish, and gravalax to tuna and shrimp.

Other classic sandwiches include hot pastrami, salami, chopped liver, and fresh roasted turkey, among others. There is also a special Borscht Belt Burger, triple decker club sandwich, and cases filled with salads and “schmears.” Israeli, borscht beet, chicken, baked salmon, and whitefish are just some of the salads,

Schmears consist of every kind of cream cheese available, as well as horseradish and sour cream.

Don’t forget the knishes (square or round) and latkes, and a full range of caviar.

The famous Ess-a-Bagels from New York are delivered fresh daily, and breakfast specials include egg and cheese sandwiches, lox scrambles (lox, eggs, caramelized onions, and rye toast), and avocado toast.

Coffee from the Paper Plane, a fifth generation Colombian family-owned coffee company, is another highlight. Other beverages are tea and a variety of sodas, including Dr. Brown’s, Mexican Coke, Abita root beer, Natalie’s lemonade, and many others. The special Brooklyn-style egg cream, with chocolate or vanilla syrup, is a highlight for many customers.

Rugelach, babka, cheesecake, black-and-white cookies are all there to top off the lunch.

Wide Range

Prices cover a wide range, with soup and sandwiches from $7 (up to $20 for overstuffed sandwiches); bagels, coffee, and sodas from $2, and egg creams at $5.

Offering the best is very important to the Borscht Belt Delicatessen partners, says Liberato. “You are only as good as your ingredients, and we want the best. I have learned where to find the best, and I go to numerous purveyors, and locally as much as possible.

“I am very goal-oriented, and it is important to prepare for everything you can, and pay close attention to detail and to customer service. We also have a great team, and I am enjoying seeing how well we all work together. In this time after COVID, we are looking for more people to join our staff. We have a great working environment.

“It is also a very welcoming atmosphere for customers. We want people to feel at home. This is key.”

They have certainly accomplished that. In addition to consuming memorable meals, customers are having fun!

The relaxed and congenial ambiance is conducive to interaction, and the closeness of the tables invites conversation among customers, who do not remain strangers. Recently, people from California, Florida, Long Island, Brooklyn, New Hope, and Princeton all got to know each other over pastrami, matzo ball soup, bagels, and egg creams.

Era and Energy

Black-and-white photos on the walls depict Catskill Borscht Belt scenes and celebrities, capturing the era and energy of that special time and place. The ’50s music in the background (a nod to the heyday of the Borsch Belt) so resonated with one customer that she actually danced in the aisle.

Breakfast and lunch are available, as are both indoor and outdoor dining and takeout. Twenty-three customers can be seated inside, and 24 outdoors. Additional seating is available in the Stockton Market. Catering services will also be offered for all sizes and styles of events.

The partners are delighted with their warm reception, and look forward to a long stay and becoming a significant part of the Stockton community.

“We want to be engaged and support organizations and charities here,” points out Liberato. “This has always been important to us.”

And making people happy is his mission and his hope for the deli, he reports. “I have been put on this planet to create experiences for people. I really believe this!”

Wonderful surprises can happen with that outlook, he adds. “My first grade teacher, who now lives in Princeton, came to our opening. Who could believe that!

“It has been a great experience creating this; starting with the concept, and then being able to bring people together around food. We are a community melting pot here — a community within itself. I love what I do!”

Borscht Belt Delicatessen is open Thursday through Sunday 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Hours will be expanded at a later time.

For more information, call (609) 460-4051. Website: theborschtbelt.com.