Manhattan in the Desert

Shlomo and Vito's is worth a shot--but stick to the Jewish side of the menu

A Jewish woman and an Italian woman walk into a deli ... specifically, Shlomo and Vito's New York Delicatessen, at the crossing of Skyline Road and Campbell Avenue.

Karyn Zoldan (the Jewish woman) and I (the Italian) had dinner at S&V's recently. We found a passel of very friendly people working and an overwhelming menu that has high and low notes.

S&V's certainly subscribes to the idea that you eat with your eyes first. As you enter, you notice the multiplicity of food in display cases: lots of meats, colorful salads, some entrées and humongous desserts. Impressive. Still, something was lacking: what an old friend once called "a nose orgasm"--that heady aroma that hits you when you walk in the door, the mingled scents of well-seasoned meats, lush oils and brines, and aged cheeses.

The walls are lined in dark, gleaming wood, trimmed out in red and mirrors. There's a bar at the back, and a very nice patio. Historic New York City reprints hang everywhere. The menu--indicative of a restaurant more than a deli--has everything from appetizers to full dinners to desserts. Portions are most generous.

Karyn was "jonesing" for some whitefish and was pleased to find the specialty fish sampler ($15.25), where one can choose from a nice assortment of smoked fishes. It comes with whipped cream cheese, red onion slices, capers and a choice of bread. She opted for a double order of whitefish, kippered salmon and an "everything" bagel. (The bagels are made by Viro's Italian Bakery in town.) She also ordered noodle kugel ($4) and an iced tea ($2.50).

I ordered the chicken-livers appetizer ($9.25) and a half eggplant parmesan sub ($7.75) on a crusty roll (kudos for the half-sandwich offering). It comes with fries and a choice of sides; I choose macaroni salad. I also ordered a side of macaroni and cheese with Italian sausage ($5.50) and a Dr. Jones cream soda ($2.50).

Cold, crisp, thick, half-sour pickle slices were brought to the table as we waited for our food--a nice touch.

The generous portion of chicken livers arrived first. The crispy coating allowed the buttery liver to shine through. The Shlomo sauce on the side--actually a very thin ranch dressing--was an odd pairing and seemed unnecessary.

Next came the entrées. Karyn's cold plate was chock-full of wonderfully smoked whitefish and salmon. The whitefish fulfilled her jonesing; she called it "a plate of perfection." She had more than enough to take home.

The kugel, too, won raves. ("Almost as good as my mom's.") Cooked to a beautiful golden brown, the egg noodles were layered with golden raisins and a creamy cheese sauce.

My eggplant parm sandwich was good; actually, I should say the eggplant parm was good: It was crispy on the outside, tender on the inside and topped with a light marinara sauce and mozzarella as good as any I've had. The problem was the bun: It was supposed to be crusty, but it wasn't. While the fries were passable, the macaroni salad wasn't. The noodles were overcooked, and the dressing was bland.

I wasn't that impressed with the mac 'n' cheese, either. The sausage slices on top tasted more like breakfast sausage than anything Italian. The cheese sauce was goopy and practically obliterated the overcooked elbow macaroni.

It seemed almost impossible to eat dessert after all of that food, but we ordered zeppoli ($7) anyway. Again, the plate was an eyeful, but the normally sweet little wonders held little flavor, and the texture was all wrong. Zeppoli are supposed to be light little bites, and while I understand the idea of making them larger for eye appeal, these felt more like cake donuts than the sweet bread dough I know and love.

For visit No. 2, John and I stopped in for a Saturday lunch. We ordered the potato latkes ($8.50) for a starter. John built his own sandwich with capicola, hard salami, aged imported Swiss cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and mustard on marble rye ($11). He ordered the potato salad as his side. I ordered a half Reuben with a side of creamy slaw ($7.50). John ordered a Dr. Jones black cherry soda ($2.50), and I tried the Manhattan special ($2.50), an espresso soda.

The three latkes were perfect (at least as far as this Italian girl and her Irish husband were concerned). The outside almost crackled when you cut into them, and the potatoes inside were tender and laced with a hint of onion and garlic. The side of cinnamon-laced applesauce was tempered by the side of cold sour cream.

Both sandwiches were huge. All the meat was of high-quality; the corned beef was tender and almost fat-free. I would've liked a tad more Russian dressing on mine, and John felt the need to add some of the tableside mustard to his sandwich--but still these were good. The sides, though, were dull, not up to "deli" expectations. We also had to ask for those pickles, as the server spaced out.

For dessert: lemon meringue pie ($9) and raspberry rugelach ($1.50). We were told that all of the desserts, save the apple pie, are made in-house. The huge piece of rugelach was jammed with raspberries and raisins; I've had better. The pie lacked any sour-power at first, but at home, after I let it sit out a bit, the lemon flavor was more pronounced, and the meringue was more tender.

Shlomo and Vito's Jewish side comes off better than its Italian side. The well-calculated design (and overly ambitious menu) creates a more sanitized vibe than anything you'll find at a true deli. And while the prices may seem high, portions are just about big enough to have another meal at home.

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