On Thanksgiving mornings, you could find Jerry DeAngelus in the cellar at Gershon’s Deli, playing poker with Ennio “Doc” Isabella while they waited for their turkeys to finish.
“Doc had a key,” DeAngelus said. “We’d open up the store ourselves, cook our turkeys and play poker till noontime and leave.”
It wasn’t their store, but that hardly mattered. They met there every morning for coffee. DeAngelus had been going to the Upper Union Street deli since it opened in 1954, when he was a young boy but old enough to ride his bike around town. After Isabella died, DeAngelus still showed up for coffee. He still does. Every morning before work, the 67-year-old accountant strolls in, orders a coffee and bagel, sits down and reads the newspapers before heading into Latham for work.
This summer marks 60 years since Irv and Lena Gershon opened Gershon’s Deli on Upper Union Street. It was originally located across the street in a building that today is home to Mr. BBQ and Holiday Liquor Store. Many of the menu items that earned it the moniker “the best deli north of New York City” are still around — the turkey, the roast beef, the corned beef, the pastrami, the signature half-sour garlic dill pickles.
But it’s not the food that makes owner Tony Lauria smile when he thinks about the 60-year milestone. It’s the customers like DeAngelus. Or the guy who used to bring his mom in every Saturday for lunch before she moved into a nursing home. Or the customer who flies in from California each year and orders two corned beef sandwiches and Dr. Brown’s sodas for her mom’s birthday lunch. Or, when he really wants a laugh, he thinks about the woman who accidentally drove her car through their brand-new patio a while back.
“She’s a good customer, too,” he said.
At a glance
Gershon’s Deli celebrates 60 years:
Where: 1600 Union St., Schenectady
When: Wednesday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
What: 11 a.m. ribbon-cutting, followed by lunch specials from noon to 6 p.m. Roast beef, turkey and ham sandwiches with a beverage will be $6.60. Drawings will also be held for a free gift basket and Gershon’s gift cards.
“We don’t let her park anywhere near the building, though,” joked General Manager Rocco Zabin.
If it’s 7:30 a.m., you can bet the second table on the right at Gershon’s is probably already full.
“We get very upset if anyone’s sitting at our table,” said Fred Kaplan, 78.
Kaplan has been meeting four friends at the same table inside Gershon’s Deli for coffee and bagels for 20 years. There’s Bruce Bramley, the attorney; Paul Isenberg, the retired haberdasher; Michael Freedman, the college professor; and Jeff Moak, the veterinarian. The youngest of the bunch is 65. Kaplan, chairman of Schenectady-based gasoline distributor and convenience store chain Red-Kap Sales Inc., is the oldest.
“If you hang around any Jewish delicatessen long enough, you’ll notice there’s always a table of old Jewish men,” Kaplan said. “We’ve been going in there for a while. And one day, we looked around and we were the old Jewish men.”
When they’re not partaking in dark humor, he said, the group of three staunch liberals and two staunch conservatives debates politics or discusses how badly they played golf the previous day. When the clock nears 9 a.m., they flip coins to see who should pay.
Kaplan has been a Gershon’s patron for as long as it’s been open. He worked in a men’s clothing store called Dall’s that occupied the same building as Gershon’s original storefront.
In just two years of business, the deli outgrew its space and moved across the street to its current location at 1600 Union St., where the deli and catering business still thrive today. In 1973, the Gershons sold the business to their nephew, Bob Lessner, who had worked there for many years. That was the same year that Lauria, trained in metal work, left Sicily to look for work in the U.S. He was 19.
He worked as a dishwasher at Luigi’s in Albany, then Mangino’s in Saratoga Springs and St. Clare’s Hospital in Schenectady before landing as a counterman at Gershon’s.
“I started at the counter, but when we needed someone to do dishes I washed the dishes,” Lauria said. “I cleaned bathrooms, worked in the kitchen making sandwiches. I used to do most of the catering.”
By 1978, Lauria, with partners Dave Savino and Lou Gregory, bought the place from Lessner, who had long considered the young Italian man an adopted son of sorts. Savino left the business two years later, and Gregory stuck it out until 2009, leaving Lauria the sole owner.
“I still enjoy it,” Lauria said. “But, you know, I’m almost 61. I just got married last year, too. I’m planning to be here maybe another three, four years. I never imagined that I would be here or be the owner this long. Not when I came over to this country. But I’m very, very happy. And I have a great staff and great customers. So many of them come in almost every single day.”
Alma Willey stops in a few times a week. Whenever her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are in town, the longtime resident of nearby Baker Street brings the whole brood into Gershon’s, where she earned the nickname “Grandma” nearly 30 years ago.
“Gershon’s staff heard the children calling me ‘Grandma’ and it just stuck,” she said. “Once Tony Lauria had grandchildren, I started calling him ‘Grandpa.’ ”
Perhaps the customers are so loyal in exchange for the loyalty offered them. After all, it’s not unusual for a Gershon’s employee to go out of their way to deliver food to customers who are sick or convalescing at home following surgery. Lauria can’t help but think of an older gentleman who lived alone and used to come in for meals a few times a week.
“But then he couldn’t leave the house no more, so we deliver to him,” he said. “Now, he’s got somebody that takes care of him, so that person comes in for him. But we try. For the good customers, we try to accommodate them. A lot of the employees know the customers and they would do anything for them.”
On a recent Wednesday, Jerry DeAngelus had some time to kill between errands, so he added an afternoon stop at Gershon’s for some coffee and Sudoku.
Customers filtered in and out, many of them not needing to spend much time staring into the deli case before placing their order. Behind the glass sat chopped liver, slabs of pink-bellied roast beef and big rectangular blocks of baked ham and boiled ham. There was kugel and knishes, Nova Lox and Capocollo, meatloaf and pastrami, and lots and lots of pickles. The most popular item is the turkey, delivered fresh several times a week, ordered by the pound or as cold cuts to stuff a sandwich.
DeAngelus no longer cooks his Thanksgiving turkey here. But he still orders a few slices to top his bagel each day.
“This is it,” he said, looking around. “This is the place to be. I mean, in this neighborhood, you can’t think of a deli without thinking of Gershon’s. It’s very comfortable. You know everybody and everybody knows you. It’s like the meeting place, you know?”