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Support quality and tradition: Patronize traditional Italian butcher shops


June is when I dive into cooking meat on the grill. There is something special about being outside behind my grill immersed in flame and smoke, grilling beef, lamb, pork, poultry, seafood, and so much more. For me, the true joy is grilling big cuts of perfectly seasoned steaks, chops, and roasts. The question is, where do I buy the meat that deserves the right to make an appearance on my grill? 

Esposito’s on South Ninth Street in Philadelphia.

Years ago, I worked in a small Italian butcher shop and deli. Under the watchful eye of Al DiCicco, I learned the art of sharpening knives, cleaning the blocks, and gradually working up to handling the meat. In those days, the beef came off the truck by hanging the hind quarters on a hook riding on a rail directly into the shop. 

I still can picture the day that Al decided it was time for me to start “catching.” Now, Al was 5-foot-6 and slight of build. There he was standing at the end of the rail as that first hind quarter of beef came rolling in. He stooped down, grabbed the 150-plus pounds of beef, lifted it off the hook, and carried it into the refrigerator. 

Now it was my turn. I was a 5-foot-11, 225-pound tough guy. That beef came buzzing down the rail. I stooped down and was ready to follow Al’s example. That hind quarter hit me in the chest and knocked me flat on my back on the floor to the amusement of everyone in that shop. I eventually learned to move that beef without injury. 

PaPa’s Food Market on West Sixth Street in Wilmington.

It was working in that shop and coming home each night with an odd cut of beef or pork for dinner that gave me a lasting love and respect for those traditional Italian American butchers. 

Today, with supermarkets, mail-order meat houses, big box stores and such, the small family-owned Italian butcher shop is a rare find. Several traditional Italian butchers transformed their shops into multi-department specialty grocery stores. They still cut meat but that is only one of several departments within the store. 

In my opinion, these types of stores are a step up from the supermarket chains. One must look closely for the few remaining true Italian butcher shops still out there. Of course, we all recognize the names Lombardi’s Prime Meats on Packer Avenue in Philadelphia, Esposito’s, Cappuccios, and Cannuli’s on South Ninth Street Philadelphia. There are several Italian butchers scattered throughout New Jersey – places like Mastriano’s in Bloomfield, Fusciello’s in Forked River, Perrotti’s in Cranford, and A&S in Nutley to name a few. In Delaware, PaPa’s on West Sixth Street comes to mind. 

A&S Fine Foods in Nutley, N.J.

While I am featuring the traditional Italian-American butchers in this article, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are other first-class butchers in our area. Butchers like Lapp’s in Penns Grove, N.J. or Herman’s in Newark, Del. are also working hard to keep the family-owned butcher shop experience alive for us to enjoy. 

Traditional Italian-American butcher shops like these are rare gems that have passed the art of butchering down from father to son. They have remained true to the passion of offering the best quality cuts at fair prices backed by the personal reputation of names that are synonymous with excellence. 

From my perspective, I can buy less-expensive meat of every sort imaginable by simply walking into one of the big chain stores. However, if I am going to put one cut or another over the flames of my grill, I will always opt for quality. I don’t look at just the price per pound. I want a return on my investment. When I see a beautifully marbled steak, hand-made sausage that is plump and seasoned by an expert that has received the original recipe from a grandparent or great-grandparent, when I ask for a pork tenderloin and the butcher cuts it off the loin while I watch, I know what I am getting and how it will taste when it comes off the grill.

My advice to you is that if you have never bought directly from a local Italian butcher near you, do it. Don’t miss out on an unforgettable experience. If you know of a butcher in your area, stop in. Italian-American butchers love to talk about their products. So don’t be shy about asking questions.

It is important that we help to keep the Italian-American butcher tradition alive. We do that by becoming customers. Introduce yourself and they will remember and appreciate you. Take the children and grand-children with you to the butcher shop and pass the tradition of shopping in these family-owned shops on to the next generation of if Italian American shoppers. If we don’t keep these traditions alive, then who will? Now go fire up the grill and cook some amazing meals purchased from your local butcher shop. Buon Appetito!

Murray Schulman

Murray Schulman, a columnist with the Italian-American Herald for 12 years, has worked in the food business for more than 50 years, sharing his expertise in kitchens, offices and classrooms spanning several states. He retired in 2017 as head of prepared foods for Delaware Supermarkets Inc. He lives in Pennsville, N.J

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