When we called the 2nd Avenue Deli asking to speak to a server, we assumed they’d hook us up with one of the one or two old-timers left over from the East Village original. Instead, they looked to the future, and we were connected with Antoinette Morelli, who was a bank teller (and before that a server on the World Yacht) before starting at the pastrami palace’s new location. “Coming to work that first day,” she told us, “I had butterflies in my stomach because we had all the media here and we couldn’t move. They thought I wasn’t going to make it, but I surprised them.” She surprised us, too, by sounding like an old hand.
What sorts of things do you hear from longtime customers?
One told me, “I was in mourning for two years.” They come in and say, “I remember when Jack’s brother was alive.” I was talking to a woman who said, “I wanted to open a deli myself, and Abe [Lebewohl, the founder] gave me so much information — he told me to open a place of my own.” He was a colorful person, blooming.
The plan when you opened was to stay open 24/7. Is that still the case?
What they did, they closed it at 2 a.m. Monday through Thursday, and on the weekends it’s open till 4.
How percentage of people go for the complimentary gribenes (fried chicken skin) you now offer along with the usual pickles?
Two percent won’t eat the gribenes, but the pickles always go. When they leave, we put down a chocolate Bosco soda. They get excited.
How many people order the hallowed pastrami? And the sandwiches in general?
If I have 30 tables all night, probably twenty tables get pastrami. Maybe 80 percent of people get sandwiches.
What do you say to people who claim you’re not truly kosher because you’re open on Saturday?
Everything here is kosher, even the liquor. When people come in and say, “Could I have a pastrami with cheese?” I have to turn around and tell them, “We don’t have cheese because we don’t use dairy.” We do use creamer in the coffee, but it’s nondairy. The cheesecake is a tofu cheesecake.
If people don’t like that, or the fact that your cream cheese is made from tofu, can they bring their own?
My friend had these two customers — they took out a chocolate bar and cut it on the table. She said, “I asked you nicely; you can’t have that here.” You can’t come here with a bottle of water; we have to ask you to put it away.
How often does a rabbi inspect the place?
Once a week or two weeks I’ll see him come in. He looks around. Then he’ll talk with the owners, have something to eat.
Have any celebs stopped into the new place?
The first week we opened I had Mayor Koch. He had his egg barley. Tony Bennett took the whole side of one of the rooms. Bob Saget came in — he was happy and glad we were open.
What’s it like working for Jeremy Lebewohl, Abe’s 25-year-old nephew who’s cutting his teeth there?
I said it yesterday to his father, “Your son has a head on his shoulders for a 25-year-old — phenomenal.” He’s got things so under control, and you can see it. When he sees everything going smooth, he’s smooth.
Are you still getting lines? When are the best times to come in to avoid a wait?
We get the lines. At 11 a.m. you’re always sure to get a table. If you miss the 11 a.m., you’re hitting lunch, so I’d say come in between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.; you’re sure to get a table if you’re lucky. The wait is maybe fifteen minutes to half an hour. If you make it here between 5 p.m. and 6 p.m., you’ll get a table quicker than after 7 p.m.
You have a full bar now. What wine goes with pastrami?
Some like the Cabernet Sauvignon.