The balabus is back.
Howard Weiss, who opened Los Angeles’s first kosher pizza shop in the mid 1970s, has reopened his famed Kosher Nostra, and he’s looking to reclaim the glory days of over-sized slices and relentless puns that made the first Kosher Nostra a community institution.
The new Nostra is a tiny storefront on Pico Boulevard east of La Cienega Boulevard, just a block or two outside the beaten path of kosher establishments on Pico.
Since he opened a couple months ago, Weiss said, he’s been living in something of a time warp. The kids whose fingers he used to slap off the counters come in with their own little ones. Teenagers who bore the brunt of Weiss’ temper when they piled into the place after a Saturday night YULA basketball game now come in as staid 30-somethings, awash in nostalgia (and with more money in their wallets).
But Weiss will need more than nostalgia to succeed in today’s kosher market.
When he opened 25 years ago, there were maybe five or six kosher restaurants around, including Pico Kosher Deli (est. 1968), Nosh N’ Rye and a couple of others, according to the Southern California Jewish Historical Society. By 1982, there were 15 kosher restaurants, marking the beginning of the growth spurt that would bring us to close 100 kosher eateries in Los Angeles and the Valley today.
At 71, Weiss, a Tevye lookalike with tired blue eyes and a bushy beard encroaching on his face, says he’s ready to work hard to compete, but the heavy sigh and the slow shrug that accompany his determination say otherwise.
His decade in Israel in the 1990’s hasn’t fully erased the pain of the collapse of his original kosher empire, which included Peking Tam, Pepe Tam and China on Rye, with branches in the city and the Valley. That expansion and an accompanying partnership went sour in 1990. The site of the old Kosher Nostra at Fairfax Avenue near Third Street became Pizza World, owned by Darren Melamed, Weiss’ longtime manager.
The new locale is decidedly more cramped, and Weiss is still working on the décor, but some things haven’t changed. As always, Weiss has staked out a corner table where he does crosswords and assaults diners with deadpan humor, although he’s taken "Marijuana Pizza: $45" off the new menu. Above him hangs the beaten-copper miniature storefront with the "Mikveh in Rear" sign and just to the right of the counter hangs Weiss’ own answers to FAQs — the original framed poster which he printed not on a computer long before there was such a thing as FAQs (and before the words "Kosher Nostra" Googled up an anti-Semitic email-propagated rumor).
It’s too early to say whether he’ll make it. This incarnation of Kosher Nostra might turn out to be just a historical hiccup. But in a kosher community that after 25 years of growth is just now reaching an age of maturity, there might be room for a bit of nostalgia, a bad Jewish mother joke and a slice of pizza that, even with all the competition, still holds its own.