Deli Man

Movie Information

In Brief: The 2015 Asheville Jewish Film Festival starts on Thursday, May 7, at the Fine Arts Theatre with its opening-night film and reception at 6 p.m. (all tickets include both and are $22; the film alone plays again on Friday, May 8, at 1 p.m. with tickets at $8.50). This year's opening film is Eric Anjou's thoroughly charming and entertaining documentary Deli Man. As documentaries go, this one is certainly an audience-pleaser. Focusing on deli owner David "Ziggy" Gruber, yet detailing the overall history of delis in the process, the film is a fascinating look into a world of its own — one most of us only know from the perspective of a booth in a delicatessen. Nothing about the film is dry or pedantic. It's all lively and a great deal of fun. It helps that "Ziggy" is a natural performer — something his profession requires — and his story provides the film with a dramatic arc. Warm, winning and very much worth seeing.  
Genre: Documentary
Director: Eric Anjou
Starring: David "Ziggy" Gruber, Jerry Stiller, Fyvush Finkel, Cantor Jack Mendelson, Gene & Pam Gruber, Mary McCaughey Gruber
Rated: PG-13



Deli Man is that rarest of things — the informational (as opposed to activist) documentary that manages not to overstay its welcome by assuming that the viewer is just as interested in its topic as the filmmaker is. Of course, it helps that the topic of food is one to which everyone can relate, but the film’s cleverer than leaving things at that and doesn’t just rely on the fact that close-ups of impossibly thick pastrami sandwiches are pretty hard to resist. No, the film is just as stuffed as those sandwiches. It’s not just a celebration is deli food. It’s also a compact history of delicattesens. It’s a look into the whole deli experience — both behind and in front of the counter. It’s an examination of what might be called deli culture. And, perhaps best of all, it’s a character portrait of of deli owner David “Ziggy” Gruber — almost a biopic, that charts not only his work, but his personal life. It’s that last element that gives the film its shape and dramatic structure — even though it’s sometimes hard to tell where work leaves off and personal life begins.




In a sense “Ziggy” is the movie’s not-so-secret weapon. He owns and runs Kenny and Ziggy’s New York Delicatessen in Houston, but he’s kind of deli royalty as the grandson of the owner of the Rialto Deli in New York. He’s also been absorbed in the deli life since he was eight years old and now works determinedly to keep the rapidly vanishing deli culture going. In some ways, the gregarious Ziggy seems more like a force of nature than anything else. That, of course, is exactly how the film keeps going at such an enjoyable clip.




The movie puts forth the idea that there are now only about 150 delis in the U.S. — something that prompted me to check out the fate of the deli from childhood, Ronnie’s in Orlando, Florida. Sure enough, it’s long gone (like just about everything else I liked about Orlando), but what of Wolfie’s over in St. Pete? Well, that seems to be history, too. From a purely personal standpoint, I’m inclined to agree that the deli is something of a dying breed. (No, that meat and cheese counter in your grocery store is not a deli, no matter what sign they hang over it.) When you look at the thriving business in the film’s hold-outs, it’s hard to understand. But when you look at the age of the people talking about delis, it’s easier to grasp.




It’s worth noting that Ziggy is identified as being closer to his grandfather than to his parents or siblings, meaning than his values are perhaps a generation behind. This is driven home when Ziggy and his father tour the “old neighborhood” and Ziggy bemoans all the changes, while his father shrugs it off as something that just inevitably happens. Ziggy is grounded firmly in the past — even the past he never personally knew in the “old country” (Hungary) — and resists things like broadening or experimenting with the menu. Maybe that’s his secret — and the secret of his appeal in the film — he not only runs his deli, he plays the role of, yes, the Deli Man.

The Asheville Jewish Film Festival and the Fine Arts Theatre present Deli Man for two showings — Thursday, May 7, at 6 p.m. (film and reception$22) and Friday, May 8, at 1 p.m. (film only – $8.50) at Fine Arts Theatre.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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