In the Catskills, tradition lives Resorts: The mountain hotels offer a total vacation package, with lots of food. They also provide an ethnic kick.

November 24, 1996|By Barbara Shea | Barbara Shea,NEWSDAY

It's nighttime in the Catskills resort area in New York, and the jokes are flying.

"Jewish guy walks into a bar "

"Italian guy walks into a bar "

Equal-opportunity insults -- badda bing, badda boom.

After all, there's nothing like a good zinger at your expense to make you feel you really belong. And if a punch line sometimes falls flat in these politically correct times, well, maybe you should forgive the comedian the way you do foolish Uncle Marty after he's had a few drinks. Because here in the mountains, everyone is family.

It's been that way for generations -- since New York City's early Jewish immigrants adopted Sullivan County as a handy country retreat they could reach after work Friday, before Sabbath began at sundown.

Their children and grandchildren now have air conditioning and a world of other vacation options, but many continue to troop back to the Catskills -- drawn by memories of the cool mountain breezes, the nonstop entertainment and the gargantuan meals (kosher, of course).

And by tradition.

The overall tide has ebbed considerably since the Catskills' heyday, however, when every major entertainer played "the Jewish Alps." Many big names still appear, but the old metaphor of the all-inclusive resorts as docked cruise ships has taken on a new poignancy. You might as well be anchored in the Outer Hebrides for all the action you'll find off the resort grounds in the rural area along Route 17. If proposed casino gambling is approved, however, the Catskills region is poised to become the Monte Carlo of New York.

While there is some attempt to attract a mixed crowd through advertising, the Catskills resorts remain predominantly Jewish. But that, too, is slowly changing. Grossinger's is now owned by a Korean family (the top-rated golf course is open but the hotel stayed closed this year after winter damage). The old Brown's resort is becoming a condo community. And so many smaller hotels have been taken over by New Age groups that comedians have quipped that the Borscht Belt is fast becoming the Brown Rice Belt.

Meanwhile, the resorts that have hung on keep updating slowly but carefully, not wanting to spoil the air of nostalgia. You still feel that you're visiting Grandma's, but now she's got everything from video games to wave-runners -- as well as an energetic staff to nudge you to "eat" and "enjoy."

I spent a day at the Concord, largest of the Catskills' kosher compounds, and another day at Villa Roma, the prima Italian playground. On the surface, at least, the differences were only T-shirt deep: mensch vs. Italian prince. You don't have to be Jewish or Italian to enjoy either resort. If you're not one or the other, however, don't be surprised if you encounter a little friendly digging around your roots.

First stop, the Concord. I arrived at about 4 on a Friday afternoon that had been dampened by violent thunderstorms -- which might have accounted for the trickle of guests checking in. But all was not quiet in the lobby, which resounded with music from "Fiddler on the Roof." That no sooner ended than Al Altieri and the Taste of Brass took up the beat nearby. It wasn't "Dirty Dancing," but it was a start.

In the dining room lobby, a small bingo game was in progress, and in the fitness center was "Yoga, Stretch and Relaxation With Michelle." Two couples were playing tennis and Ping-Pong, and several families were splashing around the indoor pool. Others browsed in the shopping arcade. Jewish Sabbath services also were being held in various meeting rooms.

Nostalgia

Shortly after 7 p.m., I returned to the dining room, encountering a logjam of guests trying to juggle seating assignments. I finally caught the attention of the maitre d', who escorted me to a table occupied by five other solo travelers. Let's call them Tom, Dick, Harry, Joan and Jill.

All but Jill had been to the Concord before, though Tom and Joan -- who had both moved South years ago -- hadn't been back in a quarter-century. What had brought them now? "Nostalgia." But they were disappointed, and, like Jill, said they probably wouldn't return. Dick and Harry, on the other hand, have come to the Concord every summer weekend for years -- though even they conceded they've eaten in better restaurants.

One thing all will agree on about the Concord's food is that it's plentiful. An array of salads and breads already filled the table, along with bottles of kosher wine and grape juice. Then came "potage a la reine" and "consomme matzo ball." Entrees included broiled lemon-garlic chicken, pot roast, chicken cacciatore, stuffed breast of veal and baked filet of scrod. You could sample any or all.

Beyond the menu

Concord veterans readily volunteered that the secret of a perfect meal here is ordering beyond the menu. And waiters seemed more than willing to fulfill anyone's wildest wishes, making trip after trip to the kitchen with special requests.

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