“You want to know where it started?”
We were in the sprawling Katella Deli in Los Alamitos, CA. We had already walked past case after case of bakery items.
It was breakfast time, and bagels and lox were prominent items on patron tables. The cheese blintzes (pictured) were spilling over with homemade jam and rich cheese. The popular zucchini muffins were being ordered by the dozen. And owner Allan Ratman (pictured, below) knew we were intrigued.
“It started in the forest of White Russia,” he continued. “My parents went through the Holocaust. They were the sole survivors of each of their families. Have you seen the movie Defiance? That’s my parents.”
As we digested this sobering story, Ratman continued. “My dad was the baker in the forest. That’s how it began.”
We looked around the Jewish bakery, plus restaurant, plus bar, and realized just how far Ratman’s heritage had taken him. His parents eventually made it to New York, then to California, where they, in Ratman’s words, “Sold rye bread to the Jewish community.” Fast forward to 1985, when Ratman built the 16,500 square foot building that holds what he calls, “the marriage of a bakery and a restaurant.”
And what a successful marriage it has been. They sell the staples of a Jewish Deli, corned beef, pastrami, fresh roasted turkey, brisket, all offered on delicious rye bread or fresh Challa (an egg bread). They have matzo ball soup, chicken noodle soup, and a sweet & sour cabbage soup that people drive from miles around to get.
And, they sell cakes, pastries, danishes, muffins, and cookie after cookie, all baked every day from scratch. Over the years, the percentage of non-Jewish patrons has increased as more people sample the flavors of the ethnic food. Still, Ratman says, “Whatever you grew up with always tastes better.”
That’s the same spirit that led CEO and Executive Chef Rob Serritella (pictured, below) to find his Italian grandmother’s cookbook. He had been hired to revitalize Louise’s Trattoria and needed inspiration and authenticity.
He says, “Eight years ago our sauce came in a bag. Our pizza dough was frozen. Our salad dressing came in a container. We had no mixers, no braisers. It was a cookie cutter operation. In a small, neighborhood cafe, you just can’t do that.”
So, he says, “We brought chefs from Italy. I pulled my grandmother’s recipe book off the shelf—it’s her meatballs we now serve. We went back to 100 percent fresh, with our oils and our cheese direct from Italy. We brought it to life again.” The resulting concept is something he calls “Cal-Italian”—a mixing, really, of two ethnicities.
To keep it fresh, Serritella says they make frequent trips to Italy, picking up ideas and supplies to service all seven Louise’s locations. They have their sausage and their pastas specially made for them. They are staying true to the heritage that brought them back to life and brought their customers back. Recently, they revised their menu, adding a few new family recipes.
We couldn’t help but be reminded of one of the Top 10 Food Trends for 2010 that we released just last week: American, the New Ethnicâ„ . It talks about how the kitchen is creating the new melting pot—that we are using our heritage, whatever it is, to redefine what we eat.
Whether it’s from a Jewish deli and restaurant, or from a neighborhood Italian trattoria, we have our grandparents to thank.
It’s heritage, rolled up into your choice of a matza ball or a meatball. Just like Grandma . . . or Grandpa . . . used to make.
Read more from our tour: