Butcher shops are once again growing in popularity. Thanks to Michael Pollan, Fast Food Nation, and Jamie Oliver, we now have a much better sense of how that shrink wrapped piece of meat ends up in the fluorescent fridge of our grocery store. We also understand that it doesn’t taste nearly as good as it should.
Before grocery stores became supermarkets and super Wal-Marts, most people shopped at butcher shops where their meat was custom-cut by skilled butchers. I appreciate the role of a butcher not just because I’m a foodie, but because I come from a long line of butchers.
My grandfather Oteri owned a butcher shop in the Bronx where my father worked and my mother’s family always shopped. Eventually, my dad first asked my mom out on a date while she was stopping by the butcher shop.
All of my grandfather’s brothers were butchers, as were the brothers of my paternal grandmother. Her father was a butcher in East Harlem, which, up until the 1960s, was the biggest Italian neighborhood in New York. All of these shops have changed hands and are no longer butcher shops. The shop where my parents met is now a Tower Isles Jamaican Beef Patty store. My Uncle Pat’s specialty poultry store is now empty, and the shop in East Harlem has probably turned over a dozen times.
There is one, however, that still remains, and what is most remarkable is that it is the very first store owned by family in the United States: Vincent’s Meat Market on Arthur Avenue is still a busy and bustling, custom-cut butcher shop with a huge array of Italian specialties. In my opinion, it is one of the best food shops in all of New York City.
Its lineage begins in the early 1900s, when my great-grandfather Albino Oteri opened this spot as a baccalà store. Salt cod was the ultimate peasant food and in this largely Italian neighborhood, it was a dietary staple. Across the street from the baccalà store were were stables where all the other Belmont shop owners kept the horses that they used to go pick up inventory at the Bronx markets. Upstairs was an apartment where the entire family lived. The youngest children were even born there by midwife.
After World War II, the economy changed and baccalà was a thing of the past. Meat was what people wanted to buy with the new-found money in their pockets, so Albino changed with the times and eventually turned the store over to his son, John, who converted it into a full-fledged shop for meat with a loyal following in the still largely Italian neighborhood.
The shop achieved fame when it was used as a set in the 1955 film Marty, written by Paddy Chayefsky. It won the Oscar for Best Film and is largely regarded by film buffs as the prototype of all romantic comedies. Marty is the story of a lonely, single man in the Bronx who happens to be a butcher.
The scenes of Marty working were shot in Oteri’s Butcher Shop. Uncle John had to teach Ernest Borgnine, who also won Best Actor for his performance, how to cut meat, specifically sausage, so that his scenes would be realistic. Although the screenplay indicates that Marty’s boss was to be named Mr. Gazzara, Uncle John was able to convince them that his name should be used instead, and in the final cut, Marty refers to his boss “Mr. Oteri” at least four times.
In 1980 my Uncle John sold the shop to Peter De Luca, who runs the shop today. Peter has a butcher pedigree as well. He grew up working in his father’s butcher shop on 143rd Street and Morris Avenue. (The current store is named Vincent’s Meat Market in honor of his father.) When he started on Arthur Avenue, there were 21 other butchers. Three remain: Bianciardi’s, Peter’s (which is inside the Arthur Avenue Retail Market) and Vincent’s. Regulars in the neighborhood hold fierce loyalties that go back generations.
During my last visit, the store had a steady stream of customers, most of whom were obviously regulars. Peter was engrossed in pounding veal cutlets with a tenderizing mallet for an elderly man who was chattering away in Neapolitan dialect. Peter mentioned that being Ash Wednesday, it was actually a pretty slow day. I asked him about the state of his business and how things have changed over the years. He emphasized that this has always been a custom shop, and his relationships with vendors and farmers ensure that everything is of the highest quality. Meat is also seasonal. With Easter coming, there would be a greater demand for baby lambs. Tripe, liver, and calves feet are available right next to top-notch pork chops and bones cut specifically for osso bucco.
He also spoke about a new clientele, “I guess you can call them yuppies?” he said with a slow smile as he explained that the rising demand for organic, locally raised meats. He does all of this. He remembered my family kindly, and said that when he first took over the store, there were a few very old-timers who liked to reminisce about the old baccalà shop, and would recall Albino’s great strength as he chopped the baccalà in half.
Behind the counter a team of butchers worked skillfully with band saws, breaking down sides of beef, pork, and lamb. Italian style pork sausages are a specialty and the broccoli rabe sausage is truly outstanding. Most of the young butchers are no longer Italian but come from Mexico and Central America. Peter said that it requires a lot of skill to do the job right. “First, I hire someone to clean the store and the equipment. If he shows interest and ambition, I start showing him the ropes, teaching him how to do the custom cuts, how to make the sausage, and see if he can learn this craft well. I need someone who really wants to do this job because it takes a long time to teach them well and it’s very hard work.”
Peter said that he doubted his own son would want to take over the business, but he gave no indication that he would be stepping away from the business anytime soon. He is encouraged by the continuously strong business from a clientele that appreciates the work that he does. For me, I am happy to know that a piece of my own family story is still being told through food, almost 100 years later.
Vincent’s Meat Market, 2374 Arthur Avenue, Bronx, NY. 718-295-9048.