What’s the difference between a Jewish deli and an Italian deli? It sounds like the first line of a joke. But it’s not: this is serious business. Each kind of deli has its own specialties, and the food is quite different.

There is one traditional Italian deli in Santa Monica — the Bay Cities Italian Deli. Actually it’s more of a market than a deli. Their specialty seems to be nothing but the best. Of course, the best is not cheap. But if you want really good pasta, an outstanding selection of olive oils, 20 different brands of hot sauce, delicious baked breads, and hard-to-find canned products such as caponata, here you have it.

There is a little wine shop on the north end of the store. There’s not much of a selection, but the prices are reasonable and there’s enough to take a nice bottle of red home for dinner.

The deli part itself is not extensive, but there is an excellent selection of Italian salamis and other sliced meats, well made sandwiches at lunch, and a hot section with the typical Italian foods like spaghetti and meatballs, lasagna — you get the picture. The pastrami is quite delicious also. Make sure to order ahead or risk waiting awhile as this spot gets quite busy during the lunch rush.

Outside, there are a few tables and even fewer parking spaces, but then again, it’s not really a restaurant.

The same is true of the Pinocchio deli in the Pacific Palisades, although here the market is secondary and the emphasis is on the cooked foods. And what a great selection of expertly cooked foods, just like back home in Italy! The pizza is made to perfection (there seem to be three always ready, but there are 12 on the menu, and they come in regular size and small, 6-inch personal size).

Pinocchio offers 18 different pasta dishes, and there is always something ready to take home. But the exceptional part for me is the availability of main courses ready cooked and available to take home right away for dinner. How about chicken with mushrooms and asparagus? The last time I was there I saw lamb shank, and sometimes they offer Osso Buco. This is an unusual Italian deli, worth the detour.

Well over 100 years ago, in the 1870s a number of Jewish immigrants from Romania came to New York, and brought with them many of their customs. When it came to buying meat many bought the inexpensive parts of the cow, and so the meat needed extra attention to make it more palatable, which included marinating the meat in garlic and spices before boiling the meat so that the steam would loosen the fat and connective tissue. Then they would slice the meat before putting it on a bun made from the old country’s  recipe. These quite delicious sandwiches were sold from pushcarts on the New York sidewalks. They called it Pastrama, but later changed the name to Pastrami because of the popularity of salami.

In the late 1880s one enterprising restaurant owner made this the specialty of his restaurant, and thus the Jewish deli was born.

A Jewish deli has a certain ambiance. It’s usually a large place that seats a lot of people with servers who maintain a certain attitude, which is quite different with newcomers than it is with the regulars. Many of the dishes on the menu are not found in other types of restaurants, and have foreign, often Yiddish, names: knish, noodle kugul, beet borsht, bagel, kishka, and matzo balls.

And there is one other characteristic that is hard to define: everyone who eats in a Jewish deli has his or her own opinion about the food, almost each opinion is different, and each opinion is strongly felt.

In Santa Monica there are a number of Jewish delis, some just like fast food counters, but for those looking for a traditional deli there are two camps, amiably disagreeing over which is the best Jewish deli in town: the Fromin’s camp and the Izzy’s camp. You might want to visit both delis and compare for yourself.

Both are typical delis so there’s a lot of seating, and a lot of loyal customers. When my mom was alive we met every Sunday morning at Fromin’s for a fish platter. Yet when mom went out to buy lox she bought it at the Bagel Nosh deli because, she said, it was better since it was cheaper and she didn’t notice a difference in quality. One Sunday morning when I was out of town, mom didn’t show up at Fromin’s. Maurice, the owner, called her to see if she was OK. “Yes,”  she said, “But there’s no one to drive me.” So Maurice got in his car and picked mom up and took her to the restaurant for brunch. That’s what I call service!

Fromin’s and Izzy’s both feature overstuffed sandwiches, and both have most of the traditional Jewish foods. Izzy’s is a bit more children oriented, with small pizzas and a kid’s menu. Both have extensive menus, but Fromin’s has a wider selection of products in the take-out section, and the menu is a bit more traditionally Jewish. Prices are not that different, but overall Fromin’s is about 10 percent less expensive.

So how’s the food? Pretty good! The knish is big enough for two, the borsht is excellent, especially with a lot of sour cream stirred into it; I love the kiska with the brown sauce on the side, and the matza balls almost float like my grandmother’s did, but these are a bit bigger. I prefer them smaller with more chicken soup in the bowl.

Izzy’s has one leg up on Fromin’s because it’s open 24 hours a day. That’s a terrific feature to know about. But I still go to Fromin’s for two reasons: the assorted fish platter can’t be beat and the delicious steak sandwich at $12 (which easily serves two people) is one of the best bargains in town.

OK, I’m wishy-washy about this. How about you, dear reader? E-mail me what you think.

Merv Hecht, the food and wine critic for the Santa Monica Daily Press, is a wine buyer and consultant to a number of national and international food and wine companies. He can be reached at mervynhecht@yahoo.com

If You Go

Bay Cities Italian Deli

1517 Lincoln Blvd.

Santa Monica, Calif., 90401

(310) 395-8279

Izzy’s Deli to the Stars

1433 Wilshire Blvd.

Santa Monica, Calif., 90403

(310) 394-1131

(delivery service)

Pinnocchio in Cucina

970 Monument St.

Pacific Palisades, Calif., 90272

(310) 454-0709

(delivery service)

Fromin’s Restaurant

1832 Wilshire Blvd.

Santa Monica, Calif., 90403

(310) 829-5443

(delivery service)