From the 1920s to the 1960s, the Catskills region in upstate New York pulsed with summer waves of the New York City Jewish Community. As many as 500 resorts peppered the mountains, and throughout them fare like brisket and kugel-filled bellies. With food a staple of the community’s culture, the region garnered the nickname the Borscht Belt.
Mike Dalewitz grew up not far away from those places. Though it was after their heyday, evidence of their liveliness remained around him. Alongside celebrity chef Nick Liberato, he’s bringing a taste of them to Stockton, a quaint river town along the Delaware on New Jersey’s “west coast,” as a Jewish American deli dubbed The Borscht Belt in its honor.
The restaurant opens at Stockton Market June 19.
Liberato and Dalewitz were introduced by the rabbi at Shir Ami synagogue in Newtown, Pa. where Liberato’s wife is a teacher. It was February of last year. Dalewitz had sold his business two weeks beforehand and was consulting with the rabbi on what his next steps should be.
After asking him what he missed most in life, the rabbi decided to introduce him to Liberato, the star of Netflix series Restaurants on the Edge, who was looking for someone to start a hospitality group with after relocating back on the east coast after years in Los Angeles.
The two hit it off, and then just a month later realized their concept had to be something they’d not considered before: pandemic proof.
Jewish delis, ever the homes of expert takeout, haven’t been “one of those top chef things,” Dalewitz said, and Liberato was used to working in Michelin starred restaurants. Visiting them much of his life, though, he wasn’t a stranger, and the two set out to create a destination at The Borscht Belt: A deli where people could watch their brisket get smoked and pastrami cut and where they could drink a Dr. Brown’s Cel-Ray or a traditional egg cream, but also where international flavors are woven into the menu and Instagram photos are easily staged beside a neon sign commanding “Be a Mensch!” and a giant bagel-shaped bench.
“The Borscht Belt Delicatessen represents everything my family, along with many other Jewish families loved about their summers in The Catskills: community, family, celebrations, entertainment, and unbeatable N.Y.-style Jewish cuisine,” said Dalewitz. “Our idea with The Borscht Belt is to resurrect those memories while paying homage to both Jewish culture and all the iconic New York delis and bagel shops we’ve always loved.”
Their just-launched hospitality group, 618 Hospitality, is a nod to a date that’s important to both of them: June 18. Both of them have a daughter born on that day, and it’s Dalewitz’s and his wife’s wedding anniversary. It’s also the date of one of their favorite Grateful Dead shows; and this year, it was the media preview day for The Borscht Belt.
As excited as both men are for June 19, Liberato is looking forward to playing with the menu in response to what customers are most excited about.
“I’ve been talking to Mike about doing a brisket bahn mi sandwich. Chopped liver is such a big here [sic], and I thought it would it be cool if we could do a chopped liver with a brisket bahn mi? There are so many ways to bring different cultures and flavors. It’ll get more exciting as we go … the fun really starts when everyone’s comfortable with the menu,” Liberato said.