Across the street from a Subway and a pair of large McDonald’s arches sits a small market: the Polish G.I Delicatessen (109 First Avenue; 212-982-7893). Boasting a purple awning outside and a window display full of jelly-filled paczkis, the place operates much as it always has, since long before ambitious developers decided to pay the neighborhood a visit. This piece of the East Village, once known as Little Poland, was predominantly Eastern European for decades. Luckily for locals and non-locals alike, the deli is still very much a part of the community.
Wearing his trademark fedora slightly tilted, David Cohen can often be found at a small table outside of the store, just off the corner of First Avenue and East 7th Street. For the past nine years, the Israeli-born Cohen, a former car-service driver, has been a familiar face outside and inside the business, speaking a handful of different languages to the mix of customers entering the store.
The narrow, deep store specializes in hard-to-find Eastern European foods. Along the left side of the store are glass-fronted refrigerator cases, stocked with items such as farmer’s cheese, Polish beer (three varieties), smoked fish, and mini veal hot dogs. The other side of the room is stacked from floor to ceiling with instant Polish soups, myriad varieties of mayonnaise, and tea flavors like bilberry (close to blueberry, but not quite). The back of the store is where the real action happens. Just behind the counter is a small kitchen where Polish-born Grace Iwuc, owner and head chef of the store since 1996, does her work.
“They are filled with the real thing,” Grace says, proudly indicating her homemade blintzes, which are made throughout the day. One of the most popular is a sweet and savory version stuffed with mushrooms and slowly simmered onions. Grace’s cold borscht soup, containing not only beet juice but grated beets and a cornucopia of Eastern European seasonings like sorrel and green onion, is tough to keep in stock on days when the mercury rises. It’s only available in the summer — customers know it’s around when the “summer borscht” sign appears in the window.
“You need to come in on Fridays and Saturdays — the fried fish is crazy,” a longtime regular tells the Voice. Served only on those two days, the fresh, delicate sea bass is lightly fried and served to go. “Make sure you call in your order,” another regular recommends. “You don’t want to come and there’s none to take home.”
In addition to the homemade goodies, the store also stocks a wide array of cured meats, such as twice-cooked bacon and a selection of hams and kielbasas. Are you looking for the best mustard in town? If so, G.I. stocks it — it’s made just down the street at East Village Meat Market.
It’s rare to find a shop like G.I. still active in the city these days, especially in an area as highly developed as the East Village. But even if you’re not a fan of mushroom soup or Old World–style ham, it’s worth a visit for a real taste of the neighborhood.