The West Village is almost unrecognizable as the neighborhood in which Onofrio Ottomanelli started a butcher shop and a family on Bleecker Street in the early 1940s. Back when it was a hub of Italian-American families and neighborhood shops, a customer and cutter forged a community; the man in the white apron knew what you ate for dinner and, if you didn’t show up, he’d notice.
Probably even worry a little; something that’s still the norm here. On any random weekday afternoon in the serenely spare, white-tiled digs of number 285, just a few doors down from O. Ottomanelli & Sons’ first two addresses, you might hear something like this:
“Hey Frank, I still haven’t gotten my New Year’s hug!”
The Frank in question is the third of Onofrio’s eight children, and he emerges from behind the counter to wrap his arms around the hug-requester, Nancy Dine, a customer of 25 years who today has her college-age grandson, Dexter, in tow. “I used to live in the neighborhood, but I still shop here,” she says, adding that her son does, too. “It’s the best meat in the city.” Meanwhile, down the end of the counter, a nervous, shaggy-haired 20-something in skinny jeans croaks a question to Peter, Frank’s brother:
“I’d like some pancetta?”
“OK. How much?”
“Um, well, maybe a quarter pound? I’m not sure.” Peter grabs the pancetta in one large hand and places it securely on the wooden counter for the young man to see; he deftly grabs a knife, sharp and shiny, maybe seven inches long, and places it on the meat.
“About this much?”
Yes, exactly that.
Times have changed the neighborhood faces and the meats they eat—years ago, says Frank, people asked for things like neck bones for Sunday sauce and once-legal offal offerings like lungs; today, they want short ribs and grassfed sirloin steaks.
“It used to be a food nation on Bleecker—there were pushcarts filled with vegetables and fruit and fish all the way to Sixth Avenue,” recalls Frank, pointing a thick finger westward. His hands look iron-strong and yet with skin that is almost plush—a combination only decades of handling flesh and fat can provide.
The storefront where Ottomanelli first opened, two doors down, is now a sleek women’s boutique named Roni. The address they moved into after that? The Blind Tiger bar. Bleecker is still a food nation, but one with a very different feel. Today even the Italian foods for sale along the stretch have a modern edge—expensive olive oils sold like perfume at O & Co.; gastro gelato scooped up at Grom; artisanal pizza at Keste; an Amy’s Bread; and the spacious and gleaming new digs of that old favorite, Murray’s Cheese.
Those bygone days can be glimpsed in a framed black-and- white photo of the original storefront two doors down, a pushcart filled with produce parked in front. “It’s changed. It used to be more families!” says Frank, lifting his gray eyebrows above his wire-rimmed glasses as if time’s transformation of stands to boutiques still amazes him.
And yet, there are things that don’t change, like the constant presence of his favorite knife—as much a symbol of staying power as it is a practical tool of the trade. “It’s about 75 years old; it was my grandfather’s and then my father’s—I confiscated it and claimed it. It’s called a splitter. I really only use it for poultry. It’s always beside me; nobody touches it.”
Since their father passed away in 2000 at the age of 83, the Ottomanelli sons—Frank, Gerry, Peter and Joseph—are the only four in the family business. They’ve been training their whole lives—as boys they would run to the shop after school and do their homework in the back. Over time, each one picked up a knife and begin to learn the trade. “Dad would have us scrape meat from the bones at first,” remembers Frank. “Then, eventually, he taught us to handle chickens and ducks, and then more.”
They have weathered the storms of dining trends, literally slicing and dicing their way through lean times, eras of excess, the rise and fall and rise of Julia Child and her American take on French cookery and dietary whims like the soy-loving ’70s and the Atkins-embracing ’90s. All things taken in stride with unflustered, steady hands.
“They used to have rabbits with fur hanging in the window!” recalls David Cooper, a customer of 45 years who still shops here weekly—even though he moved to Brooklyn 28 years ago. “Eventually, they had to do away with that, I suppose because of complaints about animal cruelty, but it made the place really look like a European butcher shop. They’d have a whole wild boar or a whole deer in the shop. You felt closer to the land, to the reality of raising food and where it originated. I always expect to get things you can’t get anywhere else.”
Although the rabbits are tucked demurely inside nowadays due to USDA regulations, such species remain one of the ways the little shop differentiates itself—for decades they’ve offered arguably the city’s largest, and certainly the most reliable, selection of game: buffalo, ostrich, squab, venison, duck, boar and boxes of tiny quail eggs.
And while Frank doesn’t believe the organic label is always everything customers think it is (“They need better guidelines and stricter rules”), the little shop’s partnerships with small and local farmers means that, in addition to mainstream meats, customers can choose from a conscientious carnivore’s delight of grassfed beef, lamb, veal and pork, and free-range birds. As a result they were awarded Slow Food’s Snail of Approval, though the accompanying blurb rightly deems the cleaver-wielding staff as a disappearing heritage breed of its own: “Ottomanelli’s was one of the first butchers to source free-range poultry and pasture-raised meats, but the real contribution they make is their practice and maintenance of what has become a severely endangered set of skills, of artistry really, that bridges the wide gap between the animal in the field and the food in the pan.”
Such sourcing goes all the way back to Onofrio, who insisted on real ingredients decades before “locavore” entered the lexicon, when “fast food” meant dipping a piece of bread into a simmering pot before dinner. “I think my father was a little ahead of his time in certain respects. We like to give [small farms] a try to meet the quality that we handle.” Frank pays visits to about a half-dozen local purveyors to hand-select the meat, and uses the same kind of picky, critical eye when he looks further afield. “I’m trying to make a trip to Montana soon to check out one of our [potential] suppliers. He sent us samples, but I want to check it out first-hand to make sure it’s everything they say it is. We’ve got to keep our reputation—my father handed down his goodwill.”
It all started in the Pugliese city of Bari in southern Italy, from where the Ottomanelli family initially hailed. Although the Bleecker business has been male-dominated since it opened its doors, the founding father learned his skills from his mother, who taught Onofrio to wield a cleaver and make her famous lamb sausage, a phenomenally fragrant family recipe that was passed down to Frank and which he still makes every other day. “It’s very involved,” he says, with the solemn gravity of a person who holds the secret of family treasure. “And you have to be very careful not to overcook it.” (The best way, he counsels, is adding it to a slowsimmered marinara in its final half hour on the stove—advice readily and kindly given, and that one would be wise to heed.) The family had come to America soon after the turn of the last century for the same reason most Italians were sailed west back then—the hope of, and determination for, a better life. Onofrio was born in 1917 in Manhattan; the family returned to Italy for much of his childhood but came back to America to stay in 1937—when he was drafted into the army to fight in World War II and promptly sent overseas again. After being discharged for a battle wound, he landed back in Manhattan in need of work. He and his brother, Joe, put their cleaver skills to work in into their uncle’s butchershop business on the Upper East Side.
Several years and five children later, Onofrio found the first storefront on Bleecker, and struck out on his own to open O. Ottomanelli & Sons. Eventually the Uptown store would take on the Ottomanelli name as well (they go by Ottomanelli Brothers), but the businesses were and remain amicably separate—the UES Ottomanelli Brothers expanded far beyond the butchering business into other storefronts as well as a nationwide mail-order of myriad sundries; down on Bleecker, O. Ottomanelli & Sons remains a place where men in white coats look you in the eye, take your order and cut meat by hand.
But this is the thing about Ottomanelli & Sons: It truly is all about the meat. “I’m old enough to remember the days before supermarkets took over retail, when local butcher stores and pork stores were where we bought all our meat,” says chef Mike Colameco, host of PBS’s NYC-centric Colameco’s Food Show, and host of “Food Talk” on WOR. “While butchering is making a big comeback these days as witnessed by the various little shops popping up inhabited by tat tooed skinny kids wielding scimitars and talking grassfed and head to tail, Ottomanelli is and has always been the oldschool real deal. It’s all about personal service. If the little old lady needs two six-ounce strips and a pound of cubed lean stew meat, they cut it to order. Need a double crown roast of pork for a party of 20? They’ll have it ready in a few hours. Not sure how to utilize boneless short ribs? Just ask—they cut meat, and know how to cook it too.”
On Sunday nights, says Frank, the family—all of whom relocated from the West Village to the South Shore of Staten Island years ago—still gathers, often with multiple generations at the table, for dinner together. The brothers carpool into work. On weekday mornings when Frank has to visit suppliers, they’ll head to the shop first, where Frank will pick up one of their refrigerated trucks and head out.
“At 4 o’clock in the morning I’m on the phone with my suppliers and I go to the market five days a week. I have a couple of suppliers in Hunts Point [in the Bronx]; I still have some in the Meatpacking District, but I also stop [at wholesale markets] in Brooklyn and in Jersey. I check what’s called the fresh, hanging meat—beef, veal, lamb and pork. I don’t buy box meat. I use my eyes; my hands. I see the color and feel the firmness. One of my other brothers buys the poultry. My brother Gerry does the game ordering; we call him the game warden,” Frank laughs. “And then my brother Pete makes sure everything that comes in is up to date and has our stamp on it, so he makes sure it wasn’t switched in any way, and that nothing was mishandled.”
As to the future of O. Ottomanelli & Sons, his own son, Matthew, 43, is the only one from the third generation to enter into the family business. Will Matthew stick with it and make sure the door still swings open? “Hopefully,” says Frank, who’s quiet for a moment, and then smiles. “He’d better—at least for his mother’s sake. Where would she get her meat?”