There was a time when Lansdowne, the quaint DelCo borough just five miles southwest of Center City, was a vacation destinations for Philadelphians. With small-town vibes and a picturesque main street, it’s looking like Lansdowne is becoming destination once again.
“This neighborhood is like Mayberry,” says Laura Frangiosa, co-owner of newly opened The Avenue Delicatessen.
But Andy Griffith and Barney Fife probably wouldn’t be able to wrap their heads around the reimagined deli fare coming out of The Avenue, which marries two cultures with serious deli cred: Jewish and Italian. But before diving into a bowl of Jewish wedding soup, let’s look into how this unlikely deli in an unlikely ’hood came to be.
With a mother who taught home ec and a grandmother who ran a Bridgeport lunch counter, Frangiosa feels that a certain level of destiny came into play regarding her career in the kitchen — and even the location of her deli. She was not exactly sold on opening up shop in Lansdowne (she was thinking more South or West Philly) until she discovered a church by the name of St. Philomena’s just around the corner. You see, Frangiosa’s grandmother was named Philomena and her greasy spoon was called Phil’s Luncheonette. “I am not a religious person by any stretch of the imagination,” she says, “but I thought maybe there’s something in the cosmos that’s telling me that I should be here.”
With a culinary background that has run the gamut from recipe development at Whole Foods, seafood sales, classical French training with Bistrot la Minette’s Peter Woolsey and hosting classes at Rittenhouse kitchen-classroom COOK, Frangiosa’s concept for The Avenue Delicatessen came from a place that was very close to home. Growing up in an Italian family, food has always been in her blood. According to family lore, her mother’s grandparents ran a Chicago grocery where Al Capone was a fan of the sausages.
Enter Joshua Skaroff, Frangiosa’s husband, partner and the inspiration for the whitefish, knishes, matzo balls and other Jewish-deli-fare-inspired elements of the menu at The Avenue.
The results are inspired. Take that Jewish wedding soup. Tiny, tender veal meatballs and escarole swim in a garlicky chicken broth a la Italian wedding soup — but in lieu of pasta, a single matzo ball so fluffy it’ll make your bubbe proud finishes it off. “I think it’s a lovely marriage of the two,” says Frangiosa.
Another lovely and unlikely marriage can be found in the Reuben arancini. These golden breaded, fried rice balls have been a Sicilian snack staple dating back to the 10th century, but The Avenue’s take on them is unique. These arancini are filled with risotto enriched with classic Reuben ingredients: Swiss cheese, sauerkraut and little cubes of house-cured corned beef. They’re served, of course, with housemade Russian dressing.
Housemade, house-cured and in-house are terms used often at the deli, thanks in big part to sous chef (or girl Friday or right-hand gal, according to Frangoisa) Becca O’Brien. The former head chef at Creperie Beau Monde, O’Brien has worked on the preserves program at Green Aisle Grocery.
Frangiosa and O’Brien are committed to making as much as possible in-house, down to the mayonnaise. Even the heavy hitters on the Philly deli scene aren’t curing their own corned beef — a true labor of love. Brisket is brined for a week before being “broasted” (read braised-meets-roasted) for three and a half hours and then trimmed and sliced for sandwiches that aren’t quite Carnegie Deli size, but pretty damned close.
Jars of O’Brien’s preserves line the counters — tomato gravy, Moroccan pickled beets, Cameo applesauce, Meyer-lemon-and-orange marmalade and smoky tomato jam. Lansdowne residents can pick up The Avenue’s fresh and preserved goods at the weekly Saturday farmers market held right across from the restaurant.
The response from the local community has been excitement and acceptance. At first it seemed like a cardamom- and clove-spiced quinoa porridge might be a hard sell, but the neighborhood eagerly anticipated the deli’s opening, and a steady cast of regulars grabbed seats at the counter immediately.
Early-bird breakfasts Tuesdays through Fridays cater to the town’s longtime residents, former regulars of Doyle’s, the deli that once lived in the same storefront. But now tofu “pastrami” sandwiches and sweet potato corned-beef hash are also options.
“Young families ready to pop out a baby move to places like East Falls and Mount Airy,” notes Frangiosa. Lansdowne offers another option: “You’re one train stop away from the city,” notes O’Brien, “and there’s grass!”
Real-estate prices are a major player in the borough’s revitalization: “There’s a lot bubbling beneath the surface. Because people have been priced out, they’re looking to move to places like Lansdowne, Media and Swarthmore. It’s affordable and you can live here.”
More people are noticing Lansdowne as a sweet option. A new record store is opening a few doors down from the deli, Dr. Dog moved their recording studio there and there are plans for the Lansdowne Theater to reopen as a venue similar to the Keswick Theatre in Glenside.
And there’s the edible side of the revitalization: A gelato and water-ice shop is in the works, and 1732 Meats, Ari Miller’s one-man charcuterie show, is putting out some truly exceptional pork products. “Best pancetta I’ve ever had, perfectly cured and salted,” raves O’Brien.
At this point, The Avenue’s Jewish-Italian fare is available only for breakfast and lunch, but there are plans for things such as long-table family-style Sunday dinners. And maybe matzo-rella sticks.
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