Stop me if you've heard this one before: After nearly 20 years away from Cleveland, a mysterious Italian chef sneaks back into town, opens a Jewish deli practically overnight, and quickly becomes the talk of the east side.
You haven't? Neither had I. But that's precisely the way it went down when Anthony Zappola opened Lox, Stock and Brisket in University Heights last month. Within a few short weeks of signing a lease on a turnkey space, the itinerant chef opened his doors and began welcoming enthusiastic crowds for lunch and dinner.
How'd he do it? By zeroing in on a venerated cuisine, paring it down to a few key components, and making every single thing from scratch. Lox, Stock and Brisket is modeled after the great Jewish delicatessens that once thrived in this very neighborhood, but it's geared to today's fast-paced lifestyle. Helping matters is the fact that the restaurant is surrounded by the likes of Chipotle, Jimmy John's and Panda Express.
"When I first got this place I was here every day and I was struggling to find something good to eat," Zappola explains. "I kept thinking, that's a good thing because if I'm struggling to find anything good, there are probably tons of people around here thinking the same thing."
The chef liked the space on Cedar Road because it came equipped with a smoker, a vestige of the previous tenant. After acquiring the keys, the owner painted a wall, built a new counter, and set about making brisket, which he's flying through at roughly 50 pounds per day. Whole Certified Angus Beef briskets are cured for two days, smoked for seven hours and then sliced to order for sandwiches. The meat combines the juicy, supple texture of barbecue with the salty, spicy seasoning of pastrami. Set against the cool crunch of housemade dill pickles and tang of yellow mustard, as it is in the Upper East Side ($11), that brisket really shines.
For the turkey, the chef brines whole breasts overnight, seasons and lightly smokes them. Thick-sliced but moist and tender, the off-the-bone meat lands in sandwiches like the Roz ($11), a satisfying stack of turkey, swiss, Cleveland Kraut and creamy Russian dressing. Zappola even makes his own lox, cold-smoked salmon that is sliced and served with a bagel and schmear in the Ridge Lane ($8).
As appetizing as the brisket and turkey might be, the number one seller at LSB is the Lincoln Park ($10), a sandwich that flirts with perfection. Twin hot and crisp fried chicken schnitzels are tucked into a butter-soft egg roll with sweet pickles and a slather of mildly spiced aioli. The uber-crunchy breading gives way to a hot, juicy interior followed by the cool, creaminess of the mayo.
Sandwiches come with a choice of sides, like a lightly dressed shredded cabbage slaw or creamy-textured redskin potato salad.
You can't open a deli without matzo ball soup ($4) and the version served here will appeal to those who prefer floaters over sinkers, bobbing in a nice broth alongside carrots and bites of turkey. While the restaurant is fast-casual in terms of ordering, paying and seating, staffers typically deliver the food on metal trays with real cutlery.
Apart from 10 or so sandwiches, sides and soup, the menu offers fluffy black and white cookies and New York-style cheesecake, both baked by the chef's mother, who can be found most days behind the register. What you won't find at Lox, Stock and Brisket are extraneous chef's specials, incompatible one-offs and generally anything that stands between the diner and the crystal-clear mission of the owner.
"I'm past the point in my career where I have anything to prove," says Zappola. "I busted my ass for Tom Colicchio for 12 years. Do you know how hard that is?"
Colicchio, of course, is the chef's chef behind such legendary restaurants as Craft, Craftsteak and Heritage Steak, the last of which is a $10 million Las Vegas eatery that up until recently employed Zappola as its "Top Chef." After working in other people's restaurants since he graduated culinary schools in Florence and London 20 years ago, the chef returned home to plant his flag – and he did so on hollowed deli ground. For 38 years, Corky and Lenny's operated across the street until it closed more than two decades ago.
"The best part has been the thank-yous from people in the neighborhood," the chef reports. "Thank you for bringing true deli back to Cedar Center; this area hasn't had something like this for a long time. This little niche we found here has been overwhelming."