2840 Smallman St., Strip District
1912 Murray Ave., Squirrel Hill
Walking into the Smallman Street Deli, you'll note a paper menu taped to the window of the vestibule. Take a moment to familiarize yourself. Or at least grab one of these sheets inside, before you get in line. Especially if it's around noon.
Because when you're in the tractor-beam of the deli's order line, there's little time to ponder whether you want your kosher salami on sourdough or multi-grain, topped with provolone or muenster, or whether you'd prefer a side of cheese blintzes or homemade artichoke salad. The lady peering over the deli counter needs your order now -- and the customers behind you are hungry, too.
Don't be intimidated, though. The friendly bustle of the place is New York-style -- just the way owners Jeff Cohen and Bill Wedner intended when they started the Strip District establishment in 2000, as an adjunct to their wholesaling outfit, Weiss Provision Co.
"It really was just a way to showcase the products we manufacture," says Wedner.
Those products would be Weiss' corned beef, roast beef and pastrami. But that's hardly all the deli offers: The menu ranges from jumbo hot dogs to standbys like the Rueben (and the Rachel), egg salad and the hummus-blend Mediterranean Veggie Sandwich.
And we're not kidding about sorting your order out. For sandwich-lovers, the deli offers eight different bread choices; seven cheeses; and six condiments, including horseradish dressing. There are also fresh baked goods, including that traditional Jewish pastry known as rugelach.
"The style is modeled after the Jewish delis that are very popular in New York," says Wedner. Like Cohen, he grew up in Squirrel Hill. But Wedner, 59, grew enamored of classic delis while visiting his daughter in Manhattan. He and Cohen started their deli with no prior restaurant experience. Before buying Weiss -- which also cuts meat for restaurants and private clubs -- Wedner had worked in produce wholesaling, Cohen in shoe sales and marketing.
But during the weekday lunch hour these days, the deli's half-dozen staffers scoot around behind the counter, preparing orders. Customers fill the dozen tables, some of them mounted on upturned plastic barrels. Your correspondent savored a sandwich of roast turkey breast on multigrain, with red onion, lettuce, tomato -- all fresh -- and piquant deli mustard. The homemade soups -- matzo ball and chicken noodle daily, among others -- would have to await another day.
The Smallman Street Deli's self-proclaimed "signature sandwiches," meanwhile, range from corned-beef, roast-beef and pastrami models. Sizes range from the simply "BIG!" to the "U-Can't Eat It!!," with its "over 1 pound of meat." The latter goes for $13.99 with pickle, chips and a fountain drink -- and its name is more friendly dare than assertion of fact. "We sell a lot of them," says Wedner. "You get some guys that come in, they'll knock it off."
The deli has done well enough to add a Squirrel Hill location in 2005. The larger Murray Avenue spot also serves breakfast and dinner, from omelets made to order and "crunchy French toast" to comfort food like fresh roasted turkey, beef brisket and potato pancakes with applesauce. It's also where most of the prep work gets done for both outlets under the supervision of chef Angelo Proakis. ("He's the nuts and bolts," says Wedner.)
But Wedner agrees: For maximum enjoyment, join the line at the deli case with your order well fixed in mind. "You get your turn," he says, "you better be ready to rock 'n' roll."