Photo by Anne Fishbein
The first trick a professional deli man masters is probably the Wedge, which is to say the sleight of hand by which the meat and bread of an ordinarily overstuffed sandwich are manipulated to resemble the most generous sandwich in the history of the world. When the maneuver is executed properly, the Wedge is a beautiful thing, three or four solid inches of gleaming sliced pastrami tapering quickly to a slender, pepper-flecked tail molded into a pleasing shape as aerodynamic as a fat airplane wing.
If you were allowed to bisect a delicatessen sandwich yourself, the sudden magnificence of the Wedge’s superstructure might leap out at you, glorious as cracking open a geode, but in practice, a good deli man will always cut the sandwich himself, then arrange the halves at an approximate 90 degree angle — all that you see when the sandwich is set down is pink, glistening cliffs of pure corned beef.
The Wedge is strictly an aesthetic conceit, mind you. If you look around at the alter kockers, the guys who have been knocking around delis so long that their arteries resemble salami-scented bobsled runs, you will notice that practically all of them dismantle their sandwiches before they begin to fress, removing a slice or two for a little appetizing nosh, then reassembling the Wedge into a roughly rectilinear form. Not for them, the trauma of trying to unlatch their mandibles like a python bent on swallowing a spotted deer; not for them the sorrow of confronting the wasted expanses of meat-bereft seeded rye.
Neophytes to the genre, especially at New York’s quantity-obsessed Carnegie Deli, are often struck with awe when they see the Wedge for the first time, like beginning surfers catching their first glimpse of the 30-foot waves on Hawaii’s north shore.
In Los Angeles and perhaps the whole Diaspora, the maestro of the Wedge is Art Ginsburg, the founder and proprietor of Art’s Delicatessen, and not incidentally a man who states on his menu, “Every Sandwich Is a Work of Art.” Art’s has been the best deli in the Valley since late in the Eisenhower administration, and its dense, tasty chicken soup, puddled around matzo balls the size of grapefruit, is justifiably renowned. Among the local cognoscenti, Art’s is well-known for the succulence of its knockwurst, the creaminess of its chopped liver, and the particular garlicky smack of its house-made pickles. Lox and eggs? Matzo Brie? Kreplach soup? Crisp-skinned cheese blintzes? Well-cured salmon on fresh Brooklyn Bagel bagels? Got ’em. You probably wouldn’t want to write home about the potato latkes or the knishes, but they’ve got them too.
No restaurant in town is better with children — the waitresses know exactly how a given car seat will nestle in a booth, of course there are kids’ menus and crayons, and highchairs appear at the table without being bidden. Also, attention is paid: Little cheeks are pinched, wispy hair rumpled, tiny shoes tweaked. (One might say that babies are treated like rock stars at Art’s, except that on the few occasions I’ve actually seen rock stars at the restaurant [Perry Farrell, Dave Grohl], not much attention was paid to them at all.) Chattering electronics salesmen and Blackberry-wielding television guys seem to use Art’s almost as a satellite office — and the waitresses are nice to them too.
But it is easy to see Art’s as primarily a museum of the Wedge, and you will see more Wedges in the delicatessen during a busy weekend lunch hour than at a B-2 Stealth Bomber factory.
Illuminated photographs of Wedges line the walls, giant, shiny portraits of pastrami and salami and even a turkey club, massively desirable sandwiches dribbled with mustard, glazed in mayonnaise where appropriate, all photographed approximately head-on. Wedges decorate the menu, the business card and the freebie calendars that Art gives out in December. The sandwiches themselves are fairly remarkable objects, pushed into the trademark configuration, yes, but built on slabs of faintly sour, crunchy-crusted rye and composed of pastrami steamed almost to the point of collapse, so that by the point you squirt on a bit of deli mustard and squeeze the Wedge into a shape approaching edibility, the meat will have collapsed into something resembling a thick, intensely flavored sauce, and the sandwich practically oozes into your mouth.
The Wedge, especially as practiced at Art’s, may be the perfect expression of the Jewish-American aesthetic: not Less is More, but Plenty arranged to seem like Way Too Much. It is the same artistic strategy you find in Gorky paintings, Bellow novels and the collected recordings of Isaac Stern, Leonard Bernstein and Beck. It goes a long way toward explaining Spielberg movies, the city of Palm Springs, and much of the architecture in Beverly Hills. And I’ve got to say: It makes for one hell of a good sandwich.
Art’s Delicatessen, 12224 Ventura Blvd., Studio City, (818) 762-1221. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. All major credit cards accepted. Beer and wine. Takeout. Valet parking. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $18–$36.