By Caroline Benveniste
When shopping at O. Ottomanelli & Sons on Bleecker Street and speaking with Frank Ottomanelli, it is easy to imagine that you are back in the Bleecker Street of the 1940’s.
At that time pushcarts lined the street, and there were six butcher shops, two fish stores and two bakeries. The pushcarts had all disappeared by the 1970’s and by the time Zito Bakery closed in 2004 almost all the long-standing food shops on the street were gone. But luckily for Village residents Ottomanelli’s remains and provides the old-fashioned butcher shop experience that is so rare in New York City and elsewhere today.
Onofrio Ottomanelli was born in 1917 to Italian parents on a ship travelling from Italy in American waters. When he was three, his parents moved back Italy, and he grew up in Bari where he learned his butchering skills. He returned to New York in 1937, and worked in his uncle’s butcher shop in Yorkville while living on Perry Street.
Onofrio opened the first Ottomanelli’s at 238 Bleecker in the 1940’s. That location was already a butcher shop, and Onofrio had his eye on it. When the owners decided to sell he bought it, probably already having in mind the motto he lived by: “live, work and trade in the Village.” The store later moved to the Blind Tiger site (also on Bleecker), and then twenty years ago, to its current location.
The Ottomanellis had eight children, six boys and two girls. Four of the sons worked with their father at the store until he passed away in 2000. Frank’s father taught him to use a knife when he was twelve or thirteen, and Frank remembers walking around the Village delivering meat at a young age. Frank’s grandfather came to the store every day and sat by the door. He expected to be brought a donut and coffee by 10:30, otherwise he would leave, and sometimes even stay away for a couple of days.
Frank says his father was ahead of his time; he offered fresh game when no one else did. When he introduced Buffalo, about forty years ago, the Daily News did a full page spread. Today Ottomanelli’s has signs for Alligator, Kangaroo and Elk. Dry aged meat continues to be a big part of their business.
Ottomanelli’s only buys hanging meat, never boxed. Onofrio would call his suppliers in the morning, starting between 4:30 and 5 AM, and if they could fulfill his order he would go on site to select the meat himself. Now Frank does the same, quite a rarity in the business today.
Not surprisingly, the store has many regular customers. It is a great place to get advice on meat—both on which cuts to buy and how to cook it. For example, if you want to make burgers, they will suggest a blend for you, and they will grind it on the spot.
Today Frank, Jerry and Joe are still working there, their brother Peter having passed away in 2012. Frank’s son Matthew is the only one of the brothers’ children to join the business. But with his strong family butchering background he has learned a rapidly vanishing set of skills which should preserve the tradition of Ottomanelli’s for future generations in the Village.
1 small onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, halved
1 TBS Olive Oil
3/8 cup breadcrumbs
2 TBS milk
3 tsp parsley, chopped finely
1.5 ounce Parmesan, grated
Salt, pepper to taste
Flour for dredging
I TBS Olive Oil for frying meatballs
Fry garlic and onions in oil until onion is translucent. Remove garlic. While onions are cooking, add milk to breadcrumbs. Beat eggs, add remaining ingredients (draining any excess milk from breadcrumbs) except the flour. Form mixture into balls, approximately one inch in diameter. Roll balls in flour. Add oil to non-stick skillet with cover. When the oil is hot, add the meatballs. Cook covered, over low heat, for 35-40 minutes, turning every 5 minutes or so to prevent burning. Serve as an appetizer or with spaghetti and tomato sauce.