Many restaurants market themselves and their food as “New York style,” but if you’re looking for the real deal, a trip to Lakeland might be in order. The Polk County city is home to Uncle Nick’s Italian Deli, founded in 2015 by Sam DeBellis, 28, and his father, Ken DeBellis, who’s also his mentor.
Sam moved from New York’s Hudson Valley to Florida with his mother and father in 2011. The DeBellis family’s ancestral home, however, is in the Bronx — home of iconic New York City institutions such as Yankee Stadium and the Bronx Zoo and known for its pivotal role in the development of hip-hop music and culture.
“We’re a New York-style Italian deli,” Sam says of Uncle Nick’s. “We make our own bread and bagels and fresh mozzarella cheese. If you go to New York, you can find a deli on every other street corner; you find delis in gas stations! But when you move down here at, besides Publix, you don't find delis in many places.”
Sam says it took awhile for residents to discover Uncle Nick’s when it first opened, but when word spread that an authentic New York-style deli had set up shop in the area, business quickly picked up. In 2020, Uncle Nick’s landed a bevy of Community Choice Awards in the Lakeland Ledger’s Best of Central Florida competition, including Best Breakfast, Best Catering, Best Sub/Sandwich Shop and Best Carryout. Not bad for a 5-year-old business in a highly competitive industry.
“A lot of people are regulars who come in every day,” Sam says, “and a lot of them are locals who’ve never even been to New York.”
Uncle Nick’s won even more fans because of how it handled the challenges of the pandemic. Sam and Ken, who get up at 3 a.m. every day to make 1,500 fresh bagels, donated hundreds of bagels to Lakeland Regional Hospital so it could feed its overworked staff. “We fed 5,000 employees,” Sam says. “That’s probably my proudest moment and our greatest achievement.”
Sam, who has a 7-year-old son, credits the mentorship of his father for much of the professional but also personal success that has come his way.
“He’s taught me everything there is to know about the business,” he says. “And not just the business but also being a man and taking care of your family. In the beginning, when we first opened, I was young and wanted everything all at once. He kept me level. You don’t want to grow too fast because that’s how you fall.”