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Noshing our way through deli delights // Marty and Lois' Delicatessen: tried and true

Thanks to the miracle of frozen foods and a few traveling bagel-makers, few places in America are beyond the sound of crunching bagels. Unfortunately, the true Jewish delicatessen has not been so easy to find. "Deli" now means any place that sells take-out, but the ideal

delicatessen of any nationality is a treasure trove of the delicacies of a culture. Homemade or imported from the old country (or the old neighborhood), these traditional foods have given identity and comfort for generations.

So, bagels do not a Jewish deli make. Bagels and corned beef, poached salmon, gefilte fish, cabbage rolls, cheese blintzes, chopped herring, kosher hot dogs, bakery cookies and pickles on the table, maybe.

For these, St. Petersburg once turned to the late, much lamented Wolfie's (1953-1976). Now the city has good spots for noshing and Jo-El's marvelous warehouse/ community center/grocery of kosher goodies, but it hasn't had a place for a sit-down feast of chicken soup, roast brisket and rice pudding.

Now from out of the north - north Pinellas, that is - rises a new deli, a real Jewish deli. Marty and Lois' Delicatessen has the aforementioned ingredients, plus fried matzo brie, home-made kishka (with gravy yet) and fine table pickles - sweet marinated vegetables in one bowl, crisp baby dills in another.

I won't say Marty and Lois's will taste exactly like the deli in your old neighborhood. I was disappointed by a few items. They didn't have my beloved turkey leg (but they have lamb shanks on weekends).

The "neighborhood" is a U.S. 19 shopping center in Palm Harbor, but it still has New York license plates and accents, corny cartoons (but no celebrity puns) and a baffling eight-page menu.

I scoured 15 categories before a waitress found bagel and lox for me. Later, we had to ask for the dinner menu, itself a triumph of complexity on one sheet: dinners, main plates and complete meal deals, all with different sets of side dishes ($7.50 to $8.95).

Happily, though, this deli keeps rules to a tolerable few and lightens up on the argument quotient. No one yanked my pickles after I ordered only soup and whitefish salad; other delis might have. Marty makes wise like a true counterman, but he's not truly cantankerous;

Lois shows genuine concern when she works the tables.

I found enough favorites to fill a table with side orders. Most were authentic, tasty, reasonably priced and nicely presented. Nothing fancy, just olive, tomato, cucumber, onion and pepper rings added color and low-schmaltz snacks on most plates.

My favorite rarity was whitefish salad ($4.45). Whitefish is the most delicate of smoked fish, and this was made with a minimum of mayo. Chopped chicken liver ($2.65) was handmade chunky and set off by tart rye bread and sauteed onions (which could have been a smidgen crisper).

Either makes a rich meal with a bowl of chicken soup ($2.60). The broth was not too heavy and was filled with comforting noodles and hefty matzo balls.

Or pair soup with bagel and lox ($5.35). My bagel was perfectly chewy the first time, a little dry the second; cream cheese was fluffy; salmon strips very smooth, moist and a little salty. If you have stuffed cabbage ($3.25) with sweet-sour tomato-raisin sauce, skip soup; the starter portion of two rolls is plenty.

I'm not high on deli sandwiches because they are so common, but Lois' special ($5.95) with lean corned beef, turkey and BLT makings was a great mix of flavors. Cole slaw's a must: It's creamy, sharp and so fresh it may change the way you think about cabbage.

For dinner, I had poached salmon (brisket, roast chicken and cabbage rolls are served nightly and on Sunday afternoon). Two big chunks with Russian dressing were more than I could eat.

Unfortunately, the classic side dish of crunchy kasha with onions and bow-ties was spoiled by dried-out pasta. Better I should have had potato latkes with applesauce.

For dessert, the thought of cheese blintzes or a glance at the case full of cheesecake and chocolate fantasies should have been enough.

Instead, I pursued the elusive sweet noodle kugel. Ideally, layered noodles with raisins, cherries and egg should make a grand dessert, but this was tasteless, hot or cold.

But such low spots were outweighed by an array of delicacies for which we have yearned too long.

The deli-deprived should rejoice that Marty and Lois have put these dishes back on our table.

Marty & Lois' Delicatessen 2155 U.S. 19 N., Palm Harbor. Phone: 789-3354 Type: Jewish deli Hours: 11:30 a.m. - 8pm, Tues.-Thurs.;

11:30-10pm, Fri.-Sat.; 9am-8pm Sun. No credit cards. Non-smoking section. Beer, wine. Handicapped access: Good. Price: $2.95 to $8.95.

Reservations not accepted. Children's meals available.

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