Craving kreplach, pastrami, or knish? Paul Stern, a longtime Oak Park resident with nearly four decades of restaurant experience, is bringing a menu filled with Jewish fare to the former home of Geppetto’s Restaurant, 113 N. Oak Park Ave.
“It has always been a dream of mine to open a Jewish deli,” said Stern. “I would always say someday, someday, someday.”
“That’s true,” chimed in his wife, Lisa. “The very first time I ever spoke to Paul, he told me he wanted to open a deli with the same feeling as Lou Mitchell’s.”
Stern fondly remembers eating at Lou Mitchell’s with his father in the restaurant’s heyday. There were bananas for the children and Milk Duds for the ladies — every meal at the family-owned diner, complete with prune and orange slice, felt like a special occasion. Stern hopes his forthcoming deli will bring back that same sense of personalization and attention to detail while honoring his father’s memory.
“My dad, Fritz, fled Austria when they started rounding up Jews,” said Stern. “He went to Switzerland, then London and eventually emigrated through Ellis Island where he was re-named Fredrick. He never spoke German to anyone but his mother — she always called him Fritzi.”
Stern’s father left New York at 18 and spent years working in the steel mills in Gary, Indiana before furthering his education and becoming a professor of English literature at UIC. Stern, who was one of four children, noted his family was not wealthy when he was a child. He recollects making breakfast for his brother every day and admits the hardworking family rarely enjoyed restaurant meals. When he was just 12 years old, however, Stern’s grandmother paid the family a visit and took them out for a meal at Red Dragon in South Holland.
“It was just a basic Chinese restaurant,” said Stern. “But somewhere in my head that meal kicked off the idea that restaurants are magical places.”
Stern found his first restaurant job washing dishes shortly after his meal at Red Dragon and never looked back. He worked as tortilla chip fryer and bartender before working alongside acclaimed Chicago farm-to-table chef, Michael Foley, in the 1980’s. Eventually he opened his own restaurant, Lucille’s, in Lincoln Park and now, with nearly 40 years of industry experience, he is poised to make his lifelong dream of owning a delicatessen come true.
“I am not a Jew that hides. There is no reason delicatessens should be dying when steak houses are booming,” said Stern. “So many Jewish cultural connections are made through the food we will serve at Fritzi’s.”
Stern is clear Fritzi’s Delicatessen will be a “Kosher-style deli” meaning they will not serve pork or shellfish and focus on Ashkenazi Jewish fare like corned beef, matzoh ball soup, kishke, brisket, chopped liver and lox. The restaurant, however, will not be a kosher establishment as evidenced by the inclusion of a Reuben sandwich on the menu.
Stern has proudly spent 10 years developing his pastrami recipe. A traditional 8–12-day dry cure with a blend of spices including black pepper, coriander and cloves precedes soaking, cold smoking, and steaming. The finished pastrami will be hand sliced for sandwiches. Vegetarians will also have a place at Fritzi’s. Stern is planning for both corned tofu and beet and labneh sandwiches to appear on the menu.
To cultivate interaction and communal feelings, customers will place orders “dim sum style” by checking off menu items on a card placed on the table. Menu items will come in a variety of sizes and Stern hopes inexpensive tasting portions will entice hesitant diners to try menu items they may be unfamiliar with.
“I want Fritzi’s to be a place where people put down their phones and actually dine with each other,” said Stern. “I want the place to have a buzz where people talk politics and share a bowl of something. If someone hears the person at the next table say they are an orthopedist, I want that person to ask them why their knee hurts. That is the heart of a deli for me.”
Serving up “good food for the soul,” Fritzi’s Delicatessen, is expected to open as early as mid-September.