The pastrami at Ethel's is made from Wagyu beef, cured in an original spice blend, and the pickles are house-made. (Photo/Alix Wall)
The pastrami at Ethel's is made from Wagyu beef, cured in an original spice blend, and the pickles are house-made. (Photo/Alix Wall)

New deli and bagel joint in Petaluma is an homage to grandma Ethel

Food coverage is supported by a generous donation from Susan and Moses Libitzky.

Chef Nicolas Abrams thought for a long time about opening a Jewish deli to honor his grandmother Ethel Ritter.

His grandfather Lew Ritter started an L.A. menswear business that served the stars, while Ethel was “always behind the scenes,” Abrams said. “She was loving and always smiling and made the family gatherings happen.”

Her efforts stuck with Abrams and left him wanting to open a place where people could gather and enjoy good food.

Ethel’s Delicatessen began serving customers in Petaluma on June 2. The deli is an outgrowth of the bagel business that Abrams started early in the pandemic with his family’s help after his restaurant work dried up. The entire Abrams family — wife Clare and children Oliver and Freya — helped every step of the way.

Going for an East Coast–West Coast hybrid, he used a sourdough starter and boiled the bagels with a bit of beer in the water. More secrets than that, he won’t divulge.

The bagels found a following. He sold them at farmers markets and by delivery. A brick-and-mortar shop became a major goal.

Now that Ethel’s is open, Jews in the Petaluma area are “coming out of the woodwork,” he said. He does have competition. The Bagel Mill opened in Petaluma in 2019. But Abrams said there are enough bagel lovers to support more than one shop in town.

Ethel’s Deli is on the north side of Petaluma, near the Lagunitas and HenHouse breweries. I recently got a chance to visit. (As new Jewish delis continue to spring up around the Bay Area, so do I.) The area has a bit of an office park vibe. But when I walked into Ethel’s, I immediately noticed the photo montage with pictures of Ethel in the Catskills and elsewhere, along with a framed page with stains and the handwritten recipe for her specialty: cabbage soup.

Abrams acknowledges that opening the deli “wasn’t smooth” and getting the site up to code took longer than he expected.

But offer a good bagel, rye and babka, and they will come.

When I visited, Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman, longtime owners of Saul’s Deli in Berkeley — now happily retired — were there enjoying sandwiches.

Nicolas Abrams (right) hadn't been open a week yet when he got a visit from Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman, longtime former owners of Saul's Deli in Berkeley, who came to Petaluma to check out Ethel's Deli. (Photo/Alix Wall)
Nicolas Abrams (right) hadn’t been open a week yet when he got a visit from Peter Levitt and Karen Adelman, longtime former owners of Saul’s Deli in Berkeley, who came to Petaluma to check out Ethel’s Deli. (Photo/Alix Wall)

“Obviously, I’ve spent my career doing this,” said Abrams, 54. “I knew the long hours and what I was getting into. And yet just having someone come up and say ‘thank you’ and ‘we love that you’re here’ and ‘it’s delicious’ goes a long way.”

The menu is compact, with a dozen sandwiches and salads. (No soups. You’ll have to make Ethel’s recipe at home.) He intends to add more items in time and take community input, too.

His pastrami is made from Wagyu beef, cured in a spice blend of his own making. He doesn’t have a smoker, so someone else handles that part. He makes 10 kinds of bagels, his own rye, and challah on Fridays.

Some of his bagel flavors are a bit unorthodox, such as black pepper and Parmesan. He has another one that takes bits of dough from his pumpernickel, cinnamon-raisin, onion and plain bagels and swirls them together.

“It’s a surprise in every bite,” he said. “Some people say, ‘Get out of here, I’m not doing that.’ But 90 percent who try it, love it,” he said. “Especially if you put cream cheese and lox on it, that sweet-salty mix is delicious.”

He offers four schmears in addition to plain, including flavors like a black garlic and sherry and a pickled shallot and herbs. His sandwiches include a breakfast sandwich with eggs and bacon, as well as more typical deli fare: a Reuben, pastrami on rye and the trinity of salads — egg, chicken and tuna.

Of course, I tried several items. These were stand-outs: the pastrami (though I have yet to encounter bad pastrami at a Bay Area Jewish deli), the chocolate babka (which has the most delicious streusel with just a whiff of cinnamon) and the rye (which truly shines when eaten with just pastrami and mustard).

Abrams also makes his own pickles, both the traditional garlic-dill version and turmeric-flavored.

There is lox but no other smoked fish options, yet. “I wanted to offer everything,” he said, but his family told him to scale back, to start slowly. Abrams said he listened because they’ve all been so involved, including his children, one in college and one in high school.

Clare, a British native, handles front-of-house operations, a far cry from her former career as a pediatric nurse. “Other than taste-testing, I don’t get involved in the kitchen,” she said.

Coming soon will be packages of take-home pastrami.

Ethel’s has eight wholesale accounts for its bagels and hopes to keep expanding. On recent weekends, the shop made 600 bagels each morning and sold out by 11 a.m.

What would Ethel think?

“I’m sure she’d be proud, if not a little humble or embarrassed,” he said. “But I think she’d love it.”

Ethel’s Delicatessen

1000 Clegg Court, Petaluma, open 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Wednesdays to Sundays. The bagels are also sold at the Larkspur farmers market on Saturdays and the Kensington farmers market on Sundays.

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."