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Plenty of delights in this deli

The Lucky Dill piles on the taste, with hearty meats and delectable-looking desserts, all at a good price. It's generous in another way, too: service.

By CHRIS SHERMAN, Times Food and Wine Critic

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 21, 2000

PALM HARBOR -- The best part of eating at the Lucky Dill comes at the end. Not just dessert (about a slice of cheesecake after a meal like this, who should complain?) or paying the bill ($6.50 is not expensive for a sandwich when the pastrami's piled more than 2 inches thick). I mean queueing up to settle up.

You may quarrel whether Lucky Dill's pickles are tart enough, whether the chopped liver is as good as your aunt's or the deli of your youth, but this place has one New York trait in spades: standing on line.

You might even fight for the right to pay just so you can move slowly down the bakery cases and ogle every pastry on all four shelves. Almond-crusted canoes filled with cherry preserves, linzer tarts in powdery finery, glistening cinnamon buns, danishes and more danishes, hamantashen the size of quarter-pounders, strudel, rugulah, mandelbrot, bobka, eclairs, napoleons and more, all dolled up with extra icing, fruit, chocolate and powdered sugar. The chocolate chips are the size of sugar cubes; brownies never looked richer.

So it's not a Parisian patisserie and maybe the pastries aren't as good as they look, but oh, how they look!

Ditto for what comes to the table, from roast beef sandwiches stacked almost too thick to eat, to blue plate specials that can barely hold all the corned beef and cabbage, to baskets of rolls to take home. The deli school of presentation isn't minimalist, it showcases excess, generosity and indulgence. (Eat . . . the guilt will come later.) For Lucky Dill and its customers, deli is a cuisine of largesse -- and largeness.

The treats of a New York Jewish delicatessen or appetizing shop have been scarce around the Tampa Bay area, despite the bagel boom. Far north Pinellas (north of the Lenny's zone) had been limited to Lucky Dill's former location, a small strip center slot.

So Lucky Dill's move to quarters with three times the tables, that gorgeous pastry case and the bakery to fill it has drawn a crowd.

The Nibbler can see why. I always loved its sandwiches. I prefer the pastrami; the corned beef is juicy but just too lean; I want some of the moistness in deli meat to come from fat. And Lucky Dill has the full range, from Hebrew National salami up to that most precious cold cut, tongue. You can order meats on a platter or with rolls to make your own, but the best is a sandwich spilling over with freshly sliced meat and surrounded by tart cole slaw and gooey potato salad. We were not meant to eat like this every day (but someday I'll have the triple threat corned beef, pastrami and liver on rye).

Chopped liver here is on the loose side, but how sweet it is, chicken liver and chopped eggs with a hint of sugar, maybe a touch of sherry. You know it's freshly made, and special.

Dill's entrees have broader appeal than ever. I haven't eaten stuffed peppers since my mother's (and don't plan to), but roast turkey, beef brisket, grilled knockwurst and meatloaf are beloved comfort foods, more popular than ever. At $7.50 or less, cheesecake or strudel included, the prices are only a buck over family restaurants and much less than chain restaurants with a lot less warmth.

Lamb shanks are coming back, and Lucky Dill's have vibrant sauce, punched up with paprika and a little vermouth. And just try to find Swiss steak elsewhere. This is the long, slow-cooked food of the true American bistro.

Cold smoked fish, the Baltic's answer to sushi, ranges from nova and lox to whitefish (sliced and in salad) and the most elegant and silky sable, the Nibbler's favorite.

And yes, you can get an egg cream with the right chocolate and foam.

Not all the sides are perfect replicas of the good old tastes: potato pancakes are a greasy patty to me, and the knish flattened on the grill was much too hard. Green beans and carrots were limp (although few go to a deli for veggies). The matzoh ball is much richer than the soup. And I'd like Lucky Dill's namesake pickle to be tarter and to see the old-fashioned tray on the table.

I tried Dill's salami omelet at lunch, and it's good but didn't pack the indulgence of the morning breakfast specials. You can get corned beef hash and eggs or French toast made with cinnamon buns or challah bread in Gran Marnier AND a basket of danishes, croissants and streusel. It's hard to think of a bagel; if I had to, I'd go for a bialy; they're big and very oniony here.

Lucky Dill is generous in another way: service. It has to be to juggle these crowds, and throughout the restaurant I encountered hustle and consistent good humor. Maybe that's not authentic, but I like my deli this way, with fewer rules, rudeness and argument.

Some deli fans may delight in comparing Lucky Dill to places they liked better. They should be glad they have a place -- and time on line -- to do so.

The Lucky Dill and Brooklyn Bakery

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