Before Matzah Balls was the name of the new Doylestown Jewish deli, it was a website domain name Kevin Aniess, the restaurant’s business manager, sat on for 25 years.
In the age before Google, Aniess scooped up the name and paid a hefty (at the time) $70 for it. He originally had plans to create a website for all things Jewish — a database for synagogues, JCCs and recipes — but instead, the website sat dormant for a quarter of a century. He always had a hunch about it.
“I always wanted to save it for something special,” he said.
The domain is now home to the website for Matzah Balls, the Jewish eatery on 24 N. Main St., which opened on Aug. 19.
But the wait for the website’s use pales in comparison for how long Doylestown residents have waited for a Jewish deli; Matzah Balls claims to be the borough’s first Jewish eatery in 250 years.
Helmed by Franco Federico, the chef behind 17 area restaurants including Ariana’s Ristorante Italiano, Matzah Balls will offer the usual Ashkenazi fare: kasha and bowties, housemade corned beef and pastrami and, of course, its namesake dish. It will source bagels from the nearby Warrington Village Bagel Co. The nonkosher restaurant also will pay homage to Federico’s Italian roots, with room on the menu for chicken piccata and osso bucco.
Aniess described the concept as “an authentic Jewish deli restaurant with a kiss of Italian.”
The combination of the two cuisines is more than just a mishmash of dishes Federico will serve to please his loyal following; it’s reflective of his own identity.
Federico, originally from Rome, Italy, found out several years ago through a DNA test that he had Jewish roots. In the 1930s, his family fled south to Sicily, changing their names from something like “Feinstein” to the more Christian-sounding Federico.
The chef wasn’t surprised about his newly discovered roots. With a thick beard and Semitic features, Federico felt he looked the part. He coincidentally had a customer base of 75-80% Jews, he said.
“I’ve always known,” Federico said of his Judaism.
Federico’s cooking history makes his Italian and Jewish dishes feel at home with one another on his expansive menu.
He describes his upbringing as in a “ghetto,” a small village where families would be prudent with their food, scraping the prickly choke from the center of an artichoke to use the tender meat of the vegetable. It’s a similar mentality to using the brisket of the beef to make corned beef or pastrami. Naturally tough, the boiled and cured preparation of the meat in traditional Ashkenazi Jewish cooking relies on the same abstemious sensibilities.
“It’s comfort food,” he said.
Though Federico found harmony between the cuisines, the decision to open up a deli was not as natural. Before Matzah Balls, the space on 24 N. Main St. was La Dolce Vita Da Franco, a fine dining Italian restaurant that Federico also owned.
Because of the restaurant’s upscale nature, COVID impacted its business significantly.
“When COVID hit us two or three months after opening, it was not easy because people were not going out to eat for fine dining,” Aniess said. “And where other Italian restaurants were able to pivot and do pizzas to-go and sandwiches to-go…People weren’t going to spend $80 for two chicken parms to-go.”
Aniess, who is Jewish, nudged Federico consistently, suggesting that he open up a Jewish deli to fulfill a community need. Doylestown had plenty of Italian restaurants but no delis in sight.
Federico was unconvinced, only budging when Aniess posted on a popular Doylestown Facebook group, asking group members about their interest in a Jewish deli in the area. The post got more than 1,000 likes and comments in two days.
That was a few months ago. The transformation of the space began in earnest only three weeks ago, when La Dolce’s Italian decor was stripped and replaced with deli cases, a pickle bar and a new logo of a steaming bowl of matzah ball soup displayed on the windows.
The main dining room of the restaurant will seat 40, with 15 seats by the deli and another 35 outside.
For Federico, the fresh start for the deli is buoyed by a fanbase who enjoyed his previous restaurants and a cuisine he loves to cook and eat.
“Never once [have] I disappointed a customer,” Federico said. “That’s been my life, my name, everything I do.” JE