My dad worked the meat counter at Weis markets in central Pennsylvania when he was a young man. He liked the job, and was unaware (like pretty much everyone) that he was part of a major movement in America, away from independent butcher shops and toward meat counters at major chain supermarkets that could offer lower prices and more convenience. This new type of demi-butcher — my dad, the friendly supermarket man — did not necessarily have decades of the butchery in his blood. He was a part-timer who knew the basics and could manage not to clip his fingers with a knife. The meat he offered was affordable, and to customers there still seemed to be plenty of cuts to choose from. This is what I and many other young people in America today grew up with: watching our parents selecting anonymous slabs of meat cut by the counter man and pasted to foam trays with plastic wrap, then laid on a refrigerated shelf.
Walking the streets of my new Brooklyn neighborhood years after my dad told me meat counter stories, I stumbled on the neighborhood butcher shop. In NYC, the breed never died out — in fact, its institutions dwindled far less than in other places across the nation. Over the next few months I discovered a warren of New York butchers and their meaty wonderlands. They weren’t just sellers; they were teachers. With their help, I learned how to use a cast iron skillet and finish my thick cuts in the oven. I learned how to cook lamb. I learned the huge variety of cuts that weren’t called NY strip, ribeye, flank or porterhouse, found cuts I could both afford to buy and cook regularly. I bought my first bone-in ribeyes for an astronomical price and seared the hell out of them for a Valentine’s day dinner. When the smoke alarms made my ears ring, it sounded like empowerment.
Today in New York a new generation of butchers is rising next to the old, beginning new establishments in the city and bleeding their knowledge into the rest of the country. A renewed interest in locally sourced food, the farm-to-table mentality among top chefs, and an ever-growing incubator of knowledge are driving the butcher shop’s return. And though big supermarket chains continue to devour customers and profits on a national level, if the neighborhood butcher shop lives on here, it stands a chance elsewhere, too.
In a tour of the five boroughs you’ll find loads of meat-festooned storefronts, their cuts fresh, purveyors friendly. You can wander into a fifth-generation shop, the 90-year-old butcher’s heirloom knife honed by years of intense use to a narrow sliver; get a crash course on pork chops from a modern storefront using old-school techniques aimed directly at millennials; enroll in butcher school to learn how to seam an animal and trim fat yourself. Here, at the heart of American butchery, you can see why the art of transforming an animal into the beginnings of a beautiful meal refuses to go away. These are the stories of four NYC butcher shops, some rising, some iconic, and the paths they’re carving today, in their own words.
Introduction and additional reporting by Chris Wright.
O. Ottomanelli and Sons Meat Market
Address: 285 Bleecker Street, New York, New York 10014
Founded: Early 1940s
Prime Cut: Prime rib
Most Popular Non-Meat Item: Tomato sauces and dry rubs
Learn More: Here
Ottomanelli’s has been a New York staple for over 75 years. The shop shifted locations three times but has existed on the same block for 65 years. Frank Ottomanelli, the current owner and head butcher, has carried on his father Onofrio’s work since he died in 2000.
I’ve worked here all my life. We’ve been in this location for around 25 years. Now my son works in the back, he does the wholesale end of it.
We’re a one-on-one butcher. You want ground meat? I go take the meat and it gets ground right in front of you. We’ll suggest different ways of cooking.
We have customers so long that I’ve been to the weddings, and I’ve been to the funerals.
When my father first came to Bleecker Street in the early ‘50s, it was different. There were two fish stores and at least six butchers over here. There were all these [music] venues. That’s when I used to deliver. I would go down to The Village Gate with my late brother Pete, and we used to see Ella Fitzgerald practicing there. The neighborhood’s changed. 50 years ago it was a lot of beatniks and theatrical people.
A lot has changed since fax and telephone. Also a lot of boxed meat. I grew up going down to the meat market with my father, but now everything is done by telephone. I still go to the markets five days a week and I don’t see the other people that I normally used to see picking up their own meat. Not only do I go to the market, but I go into the box, the walk-in cooler, myself. One time there was an inspector that said “what’re you doing in here?” And I said, “I’m picking up my meat. I am an Ottomanelli, I am a buyer.” I went over to John, he’s the boss, and I said, “John, your inspector doesn’t want me in here. Does he know who I am?” John went in there and explained it to him. I know all the rules. We are USDA inspected.
Prime rib is my favorite. I don’t think anything has more flavor. Filet mignon is tender, but not as flavorful as this. It’s the best.
I’m 90 years old. Red meat and red wine — those are my secrets.
Fleishers Craft Butchery
Address: 192 5th Avenue, Brooklyn, New York 11217 (Park Slope Location)
Founded: 2004 (CT); Park Slope, BK Location, 2011
Prime Cut: Bone-in 5-rib pork roast, hinged and tied
Most Popular Non-meat Item: Locally brewed kombucha tea
Learn More: Here
Josh and Jessica Applestone, both vegetarians, founded the original Fleishers in 2004 in Kingston, Connecticut. Today there are new owners and four locations throughout Brooklyn and Connecticut: the original restaurant, butcher shop in Park Slope, burger counter in Greenwich and HQ in Red Hook. Josh Meehan has been the head cutter at the Park Slope location for three years.
I spent 20 years in the IT business. Looking for a change, I thought about culinary school, which I couldn’t really commit to. And then I found Fleishers and took one of their classes, and eventually took the job.
The apprenticeship that we run is three months long, whole-animal butchery with a small session in the shop. So one way or the other, it means working in the shop.
To have a greater hand in the whole life of the animal, we’ve started co-oping with farmers: we use their land; they are raising our animals… We have a couple hundred head, maybe. Our goal is to have a thousand, spread across a couple different farms. Because education is such a big part of what we do, being able to explain to people exactly what we’re doing is much easier. Transparency is one of the things that we’re trying to maintain. And being able to explain where the animals come from start to finish makes that much easier.
The meat is more consistent. When you’re doing pastured animals, there’s always an inconsistency in fat content, which generally translates to flavor. So having that control from an earlier point is definitely the big focus, to get more consistent.
Our customer base is the families in the neighborhood. Lots of families in Park Slope are regulars for us. We watch couples get pregnant, and have babies, and come back, and we feed them. It’s rewarding.
Fat is flavor, very literally. The tasty things the pigs eat bind to fat more readily than muscle. With this five-rib roast, the fat just lays across your tongue, and you can taste all that.
We don’t want everyone to be eating meat all the time. We want more people to be eating less, higher-quality meat.
The Meat Hook
Address: 397 Graham Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11211
Prime Cut: Merlot Steak
Most Popular Non-Meat Item: Nixtamal tortillas
Learn More: Here
After spending years in kitchens, Ben Turley and partner Brent Young got their first taste of butchery while working in a small shop in Richmond, Virginia. A year after they moved to New York, in 2008, they opened The Meat Hook, in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Their first location was in the Brooklyn Kitchen, but, due to growing demand and tight quarters, they moved to their own space in February of 2016. Taylor Adams is a butcher and the store’s production manager.
BT: We met our first farmer, Lee Ranney, who owns Kinder Hook Farms, in 2009. From there it was just like…there’s no phone book for finding any of these guys. It’s either word of mouth, or you go door to door. We kind of did both. If you put in the time and you have respect for the farmers and what they do, then you can keep getting ingrained into that culture. We just show a lot of respect for people who work hard.
You’ll never find the Merlot Steak anywhere in the US. Four years ago, Brent and I went to Paris to do a demonstration of American cutting with a bunch of French butchers and they showed us this cut. Normally it’s braised; it’s from the calf, so it’s normally beef shank. But if you seam it out in a very specific way you get this one steak that is unbelievably good and very tender.
TA: The Meat Hook has been around for over six and a half years, but we just recently left the Brooklyn Kitchen and started our own spot here on Graham Avenue. We feel a lot more part of the neighborhood now. We’re on a busy corner, right by the subway.
People get put off by the whole foodie scene because it seems somewhat pretentious, but we try to have fun here. All our produce is organic and our cheeses are artisanal, but we’re not against putting Kraft singles on a burger, you know? We take what we do very seriously, but we also want to have fun. No one’s working here to make a ton of money.
Every community used to have a butcher. What we’re doing here is nothing new. It’s exactly how our grandparents and our great grandparents would think of a butcher shop.
Richard right here comes in every week and buys kidney, beef liver and lamb liver for his dog. It’s one of those things where we have a lot of really regular customers. We know them by name. We have a connection with people.
Vincent’s Meat Market
Address: 2374 Arthur Avenue, Bronx, NY 10458
Prime Cut: Ribeye Steak
Most Popular Non-Meat Item: Tomato sauces and cheeses
Learn More: Here
Peter De Luca is a second-generation butcher shop owner who, at the age of 20, opened Vincent’s in its current location in 1980 after his father, who started the shop, passed away in 1979. Butcher Jesse Sanchez, a transplant from Mexico, is one of De Luca’s 18 staff members.
PD: Once I came here to Arthur Avenue it became a different business. There was more opportunity to grow. I went from choice meats into prime meats, dry age, number-one milk-fed veal, baby lambs, spring lambs, baby goats, fresh-killed rabbits. You name it, I’ve done it. For a little shop, we try and do everything.
Butchery has changed tremendously. I’m not too happy about it. We’re old school. We still fabricate. We do everything the old way. We fabricate our own sausage — the guy makes it there in the front. We get our steers, we make our primal cuts and we separate everything ourselves. Today everything else is boxed meat: they buy it, they open up a package and they call themselves butchers — they’re not. We’re the real deal.
[Butchery] used to be small family-operated businesses, but the conglomerates are eating them up. But people like us are gonna survive. Because when people come here, they get personal service. It’s face to face. You build a relationship.
JS: I’ve been here since 1991. This was my first job since I came to this country from Mexico. I learned here. When I came here for the first time, I didn’t know nothing. I started as a cleaner boy. The next step was making the fresh sausage. We used to have a hand-machine so I would make them by hand. Then Peter started teaching me how to break down the beef, pork and veal. He and I, we would break down the chucks together. Then I started taking care of customers, little by little.
Peter used to say, “Come here and stand next to me. I’m gonna teach you how to take care of people.” Just one or two customers a day. The years have passed by, and now I’m the one behind the counter. I cut all the steaks. I build all the platters. I can break down ribs.
I like all the steaks, but my favorite is the ribeye. To me it’s the best flavor out of the whole animal. Filet mignon and t-bone is good, but ribeye — you got the flavor. When you cook you don’t have to put a lot of seasonings on it. You’ve got that little piece of fat in the middle. Just a little salt and garlic.
Peter’s like a father to me. I’ve worked for him more than 20 years. He treats everybody like family in here. And so much has happened. He’s been here for me and I’ve been here for him. You know, I was here during Peter’s heart attack.
He says we’ve got to treat the customers the best. Doesn’t matter if they spend a dollar or 500 dollars — we treat them the same.