Peter Shelsky refers to himself as a terrible Jew. To illustrate, he shows us the pig tattoo on his arm. Not only are Jews forbidden to eat pork, they are also not allowed to have tattoos. Yet the native New Yorker runs a very Jewish food business on Court Street. A trained chef who has worked at some high end Manhattan restaurants and oversees a successful catering company, Peter decided to bring back traditional New York Jewish food to Brooklyn with Shelsky's of Brooklyn.
Peter himself is often at the shop on Court Street answering questions about where his smoked and pickled fish come from and showing off his Bar Mitzvah album. The little shop, which opened in 2011 at a smaller location a few blocks away before heading to a longer storefront with a few tables and chairs, is a true mom and pop business where the owner is just as excited about the food as the customers are.
Appetizing stores were all over Brooklyn and the Lower East Side once upon a time as Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe settled in those areas and needed a place to get their non-meat products. In the kosher tradition, meat and dairy must be kept separate. In fact, you're not even allowed to purchase them at the same store. So an appetizing shop is a place that sells any products that are not meat related. Usually, the signature of the stores are the array of smoked fish, pickled herrings, cream cheese, and bagels or bialys.
Peter has all of those and more (try the bluefish salad and the king salmon bacon) and they are sourced from the finest producers. On our Brownstone Brooklyn Tour, we get to sample the classic New York sandwich which Peter dubs the Member of the Tribe. New Yorkers will recognize the classic combination of Gaspe Nova smoked salmon and a schmear of cream cheese on a chewy untoasted bagel (New York bagels should never be toasted, but we'll save that for a separate blog post).
A few years ago, Peter decided to expand his menu and include a section for delicatessen specialities, like pastrami, corned beef, and tongue. In the days of ole or in a very religious neighborhood, this combination of meat and dairy would not fly. But Peter is selling nostalgia here rather than religion. And as many people in the area have held onto their identity but might not be strict in their religious practicings, this place offers a very special taste of home.
In addition to the fish, meat, and sandwiches you can find all sorts of gastronomic treasures including Dr. Brown's sodas, bags of the Israeli peanut snack called Bamba, homemade rugelach, pickles, and halva.
As times changed, appetizing stores sort of faded into the past. Aside from a handful still remaining, like the famous Russ & Daughters in the Lower East Side, most people have never stepped into a store quite like this. Peter has brought back a very specific culture and cuisine that is important to the heritage and diet of many New Yorkers. And it's these kind of small local businesses that make this city so rich, vibrant, and unique.
Shelsky's of Brooklyn,
141 Court Street,
Brooklyn, New York 11201