He’s likely the only deli owner/doctor in the country, if not the world, and he’ll put his corned beef up against any of those fading New York delis — Katz’s, Second Avenue, Zabar’s.
Marc Attman is a proud third-generation deli owner: Attman’s famous deli on Lombard Street in downtown Baltimore since 1915 — the original “Corned Beef Row” — is very nearly the last deli standing in what was once a teeming immigrant Jewish neighborhood, with delis, bakeries, kosher butchers and the like. Just around the corner stand the historic Lloyd Street and B’nai Israel Synagogues, these days housing the Jewish Museum of Maryland, but the gentrifying neighborhood belies a time in the early- and mid-20th century when the area was proudly and authentically Jewish.
The Jews of Baltimore have long since moved away from Lombard Street, first to Park Heights, Reisterstown, and Pikesville, and now further out to Owings Mills. But Attman, who took over the family deli business when his father Seymour died in 2002, wanted to expand the deli’s clientele and he saw his opportunity, not around the Baltimore Beltway, but in the affluent Jewish community of Montgomery County.
“A lot of our families have moved out here [to Potomac and Rockville],” Attman said over Dr. Brown’s cream soda at his new place in Potomac, “and we decided we wanted to be a part of the Jewish community again and bring back that flavor of the deli world, which is what we know and love.”
This past summer he brought Corned Beef Row to the heart of Potomac, opening an Attman’s Delicatessen in Cabin John Shopping Center. It may not have the worn-down, shabby authenticity of the original place, with its Formica counters, assertive signage — “corned beef on rye with mustard, not mayonnaise, any questions” — but this dive with its scuffed tiled floor has served presidents, governors, senators, and just plain folks with a hankering for a good piece of meat and a bit of lip from a wise guy counterman. And this spot also has restaurant service in the back Kibbitz Room, in addition to the counter service and tables up front, something Attman felt the more discerning Potomac patrons would prefer.
A longtime member of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Pikesville, Attman says the deli will never be kosher. It was only strictly kosher for about a decade or so, he said, in
the 1930s. He admits: “Kosher is not my style. It’s not for me. First of all, to be a kosher restaurant, you need to be a strictly Orthodox person to own it, otherwise you’re not going to be supported. I’m a Conservative Jew. I’m always going to be a Conservative Jew, so I’m not going to be supported.”
“Second, in the world of delicatessen there’s not any good food out there in a strictly kosher deli,” he insists. “I’ve eaten the best deli in the world and you just can’t find a good strictly kosher deli. It’s not that good.” Kosher-style has been and will remain Attman’s calling card.
Attman insists that the pristine new restaurant and deli in Montgomery County serves the same authentic corned beef, pickles, and hot dogs with a snap as the well-worn Baltimore joint, but the surroundings, unmarred new tables, gleaming deli cases and spotless counters belie the 100-year family history that goes into the corned beef, which is made daily in the on-site kitchen. The knishes, classic potato and now new-fangled sweet potato and spinach for more modern taste buds, are also made on-site, not imported frozen like so many others from a New York purveyor.
Having opened late last summer, Attman, who divides his days into seeing patients at his optometry practice and overseeing — and basting and tasting — the corned beef and glad-handing customers, says: “We Attman boys, we keep working. My dad worked until the very end. He died of a stroke on the floor of the deli. Then we took him to the hospital. Basically that was it. His last words were: ‘So, we have bagels?’ That’s how it’s always been; we just keep going. My uncle is 94; he still works. He runs Attman’s catering division. My other uncle goes to work every day. We all work. All my cousins. There are no playboys in the program.”
The deli doc has his hand in every part of the business and while he makes it out to Potomac just once or twice a week, his wife, Debbie, works the floor as a hostess and manager during the week. The grandson of founder Harry Attman has been working the deli since he was 8. He says the work hasn’t changed all that much: “I did then what I do today: Clean tables, make sure the floor’s clean, count money, say hello to people, introduce myself, tell them I’m a third-generation owner of Attman’s Delicatessen. I always say: ‘Are you happy with everything? Is there anything I can do to make you happier?’ I’m very happy with what I do and we serve the same food we’ve served forever. I enjoy it.”
Attman has noticed some differences in his clientele’s preferences. In Baltimore, hotdogs are a big deal and many customers come in and order a sandwich and a hotdog. In Potomac, not so much. “Look at this couple,” he said to a well-dressed older couple at a nearby table. “Nice people, but they’re not going to eat a sandwich and a hotdog. Every other person who comes into Lombard Street to get a sandwich gets a hotdog or splits a hotdog. Some people will come in and say, ‘Give me three hotdogs to eat.’ I’ll never sell three hotdogs here. It’s a cultural thing.”
Corned beef on rye is the most popular sandwich in Potomac and in Baltimore. But in Potomac, people want their corned beef lean or extra lean. While Attman and his deli workers will comply, he notes that a good authentic piece of corned beef requires some fat. He also points out that Baltimore deli is sliced thinly, not like the thickly cut slabs of meat New Yorkers often pine for.
“Here [in Potomac] they don’t want any fat. On Lombard Street we sell pastrami with fat; here don’t even think about it. Fat is like a four-letter word here in Potomac,” he added.
The deli makes the corned beef fresh daily and goes through 30 to 40 pieces of eight or 10 pound cuts of corned beef. “We’re probably the biggest users of corned beef on the East Coast,” he says. “We used more corned beef than Katz’s in New York. They might use more pastrami.”
Another distinction between Lombard Street and Potomac is the preference for mayonnaise on the sandwiches in Baltimore or even a combination of mustard and mayo. In Montgomery County, it’s mustard.
While Attman loves the corned beef — and the hotdogs — his favorite? The brisket. “We have a really delicious brisket,” he says. “I learned from my father who learned from his father. It was my grandmother, Ida, who made the recipe. And all the [Attman] mothers learned how to make it. My wife makes it. I’m telling you we make some delicious brisket.”
So, nu, what’s the secret?
“I can’t tell you,” he smiles, “The truth is about how you really keep basting the brisket. You don’t just let it sit and bake. Also it makes a difference where the brisket comes from. You don’t want a brisket from too far down [on the cow]. You want it to come from the shoulder. You don’t want the brisket to be too lean. You want to let the fat melt away.”
Attman eats corned beef and a hot dog every day. He points at his pleasingly plump physique and says, “It’s a tough job, but someone’s got to taste it.”
Attman’s Delicatessen & Catering is located at 7913 Tuckerman Lane, Potomac, and 1019 E. Lombard Street, Baltimore.
An American Deli Tale: The Attman Family
The story of the Attman family is the story of 20th century Jewish immigrant success. Harry Attman, the eponymous deli’s founder, was born in Russia near the Polish border and came to America in that early 20th-century wave of immigration arriving at Ellis Island in 1912. Three years later on a visit to Baltimore, he liked the city so much he stayed, ultimately marrying Polish immigrant Ida Shapiro. The couple began operating a small confectionary and deli on East Baltimore, which grew into Attman’s. The story of four generations of the Attman family is an American, from its early immigrant roots to today’s success stories, one owns and manages more than 3,000 apartment units, another runs a nursing facility, a paper products company, and of course the famed Attman’s Delicatessen, still at home on Baltimore’s Corned Beef Row, otherwise known as Lombard Street.
This family history is told lovingly by Baltimore author M. Hirsh Goldberg in It All Started With a Deli: The Attmans of Lombard Street. The slim volume details the family history and offers highlights of the deli business – including visits by luminaries like Presidents Carter, Clinton and Bush, Oprah Winfrey, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and, of course, long-time Attman’s fan Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley. Goldberg exhibits a great fondness for his subjects, offering bits of wisdom from patriarch Seymour: ”Always go out of your way to be a diplomat,” “Look into a person’s eyes when you talk to them,” and “When you say something, mean it.”
The family had its hands in all sorts of businesses, including the women, like Phyllis who opened a series of clothing shops including Baltimore’s The Green Door. Marc, who oversees the delis also owns two optical shops in east and west Baltimore, Optical Fair, after selling his previous Sterling Optical outlets. But Goldberg takes care to reveal another side of the Attman family in his book: the many charitable contributions generations of Attmans have made and continue to make to the Baltimore Jewish community.
If you love delis, have Baltimore roots or an interest in family histories, It All Started With a Deli is a quick read and a nice addition to a home or synagogue library. Alas, no brisket secrets from Ida Attman’s recipe are revealed.
– Lisa Traiger