Deli has an expansive palate

A variety of ethnic influences create a unique flavor at Bread & Butter Gormet Deli in Tarpon Springs.

By Chris Sherman, Times Staff Writer
Published September 12, 2007

TARPON SPRINGS - In America, "deli" covers a multitude of cuisines, Jewish to Italian, New York to market.

Sorting out the exact ethnic flavor of Bread & Butter Gormet Deli is harder than most: Greek, Lebanese, Italian, Mediterranean, BLT-American or big city corned beef?

Bread & Butter sits in decidedly Greek Tarpon Springs, not in its Sponge Docks heart, but to the south on the produce-stand roadside of Alt. U.S. 19.

If the misspelling in the name suggests the origins aren't standard English, that's a calculated come-on to a table of variety as American as Thanksgiving. With light meat or dark meat.

The awning does boast of Greek and Middle Eastern specialties, but its big brag is "We carve a 28 to 30 pound turkey daily."

Roasting meat for sandwiches and slicing it thickly by hand is old-fashioned deli in any language and rarely seen anymore in a shrink-wrapped world.

So it goes throughout this world of flavors, with cinnamon and garlic, olives and grape leaves, and everything made with authentic ingredients and a welcome accent on health.

Now that's a genuine mom-and-pop place with Nellie and Fayek "Theo" Abbas in the title roles. In four decades, they've grown from a Mediterranean odd couple into a proud team who can make chickpea hummus just as tart and creamy as picnic basket deviled eggs.

Yet pegging the accent is still hard. Employees are from Spain and Egypt and wear baseball caps, polka dot kerchiefs and smiles.

On one side of the pastry case, pistachios hide in honey between golden flakes of phyllo dough, the way Lebanese children love them. To the right, the treat inside the filo is walnuts, the choice of the Greek table.

And what kind of name is Bread & Butter? "In New York, you order in a deli, you get bread and butter, that's deli. So I called it Bread & Butter," says Theo Abbas. He's Jordanian by birth, Greek Orthodox by marriage and conversion, and American by 50 years.

He does know from deli, as in New York, where he served plenty of pastrami to opera singers and ballet dancers at Lincoln Center. Or in San Francisco where the couple's delion O'Farrell Street fed a hungry city.

The Abbases and Bread & Butter moved to Tarpon Springs, where her parents and endless cousins live, 14 years ago.

Nellie Abbas learned to cook Greek specialties at home. After she and Theo married, she spent six weeks in Jerusalem mastering Middle Eastern favorites such as kibbe, tabouli and baba ghanoush with help from her mother-in-law and sister-in-law.

Middle Eastern recipes require some ingredients not common in Tarpon Springs stores. So at Bread & Butter, the center island is stacked with chili sauce and canned butter from Lebanon, rosewater for pastries, almond pudding and drinks, kofta seasoning to put fire in lamb meatballs and zaatar for the herbal kick of thyme and sumac on pita bread. There is fresh local bread, pastries from Detroit, imported cans of baba ghanoush, and pickles and hummus for an instant mezze. And for snacking out of hand, customers reach for figs, apricots and dates, nuts, pumpkin seeds and dried watermelon seeds.

The deli makes nine soups daily, Greek pastitsio in heavy bricks lightened with cinnamon, hearty eggplant Parmesan, meatloaf like Mom's, falafel like a bazaar vendor's, and a candy land of two dozen bright salads. And that turkey sandwich.

There's another ingredient here that's not evident in every deli or all home cooking: a concern for health. Besides the sturdy stuff, there are dozens of vegetarian choices, such as minted grape leaves and lentil soup and old health food favorites of bright green lemony tabouli and fresh grilled vegetables. Even the fried fish has virtually no oil and only the barest hint of flour.

Which leads the Abbases to another audience: nearby medical clinics, hospital departments and pharmaceutical reps who know Bread & Butter is healthful for doctors and nurses, too.