Cutting Through Time in Little Italy
Navigating downtown Manhattan during a rush hour snowstorm might not top your list of ideal Friday afternoon activities, but Albanese Meats & Poultry on Elizabeth Street proves to be a destination well worth the schlep. Upon arrival, I meet Jennifer Prezioso, a fourth-generation butcher and the great-granddaughter of the original store owner, standing behind the counter casually brushing crumbs off an apron embroidered with her name and a ribeye - a gift made by one of her regulars.
“Come in!” she says, welcoming me into the space that’s been in her family for over one hundred years. After years of helping out with the occasional task, Jen took on a bigger role at the shop in 2018, overseeing daily operations with her late grandfather, Moe. After he sadly passed away in 2020 from complications due to Covid-19, Jen took over as the sole owner and operator of this community institution, known to many as “the last butcher in Little Italy.” Today Jen proudly carries forward an important legacy for the neighborhood and beyond.
In two chairs in the shop sit her husband, Oliviero, and a long-time returning customer named Jordan. Behind the counter, freshly packaged patés are perched atop displays of chuck roast, chicken cutlets, ribeyes, and short ribs. The thirty-year-old butcher block stands tall, fortified by strategic reinforcements after years of meticulous sanding. Overhead, old photographs from the seventies hang like friendly ghosts, offering glimpses into the rich history of the shop. Our conversation was immediately familiar, and much like in many family settings, we occasionally struggled to be heard over overlapping interjections. While Oliviero and Jordan continued their conversation, Jen and I started ours:
Olivia When did you first start helping out at the store?
Jennifer I’ve always had many jobs. I worked in retail when I first graduated, and then for a brief period of time I worked as an assistant to a commercial real estate owner. My grandpa was going through lease issues here at the shop so suddenly all of that knowledge from the real estate job proved to be really helpful. Since my grandpa was older and had always done everything by himself, I decided that I could use what I had learned to help him business wise. I was starring in a show on Saint Mark's and could then drive with him to and from work everyday even though his car kind of smelled. In college my friends and I even got in the habit of calling it the “Meat Mobile.’ In 2018 the lease got renewed, and I said to myself, ‘You know what, I'm just going to dedicate a year to being with him, running the store, and trying to grow the business, so I can see what happens.’
Olivia I'm curious, once you made that decision to help him out, when did you start to actually work behind the counter with the products? What did your apprenticeship look like?
Jennifer When I decided to start helping him and made the conscious decision that I would no longer pursue acting, I said, ‘Okay, I'm just going to start by filming him.’ So it really all began by just watching him work. The repetition of just watching how he cut things helped me learn bit by bit. I then probably started cutting around maybe January or February of 2018 when I was bored here and it wasn't busy.My grandpa had remarkable muscle memory. If there was a piece of meat that he hadn't seen here, he would still know what to do and then he would teach me. I'd have the knife in my hand, trying to make a cut, and he'd guide me, saying "Follow the bone, go along there and then you're going to turn here and there'll be a little thing…” I’d also watch Youtube tutorials in addition to buying books and trying out different recipes because people would come in and be like “How do you cook this?” My grandpa was really good at telling people what they should do with their meat and that's something I wanted to continue.
So really, I learned gradually, piece by piece. We’d get a call from someone asking, ‘Oh, could you get me a fresh ham?’ and I'd be like, ‘Okay. Yeah, I think we can do that.’ Then I'd ask my grandfather, ‘Hey, can we get this?’ and we’d go from there.
Olivia How do you source the products for the shop?
Jennifer I took over many of the relationships that my grandfather had with people at the meat market. There's a small market that's still left in the city. I started just going there and learning from them. It's best to start learning through trial by error, by failing and all of that stuff.
At that moment, we’re interrupted by a local kindly asking Jen how she is before informing her that the Elizabeth Street package thief has been at it again. The man looks to Jen for guidance as if she’s SoHo’s spiderman. I’m beginning to think that maybe she really is. While Jen solves crimes in real time, I turn to the long-time customer Jordan to inquire further about the shop’s history.
Jordan For the longest time I actually thought that this place was closed. So imagine my surprise when just a few years ago, my wife told me that she was picking up some paté here. I thought, ‘Oh that must be a mistake, because that place is long gone.’ To be fair, the lights were always off. So we started coming in not long after lockdown. AndJen was here.
Jennifer There was a guy that came in the other day who was like, ‘I haven't been here since the eighties,’ and he’s lived on Mulberry Street since the seventies. It’s funny because once I started being here more full time, people started to notice that I was making subtle changes, like updating the window displays. I even started to keep the lights on…
Olivia I'm curious what a day in your life looks like? What's your routine from open to close?
Jennifer Mostly, I wake up, I put my order in, though sometimes I get lazy in the morning and call my meat suppliers a little bit later now that they know what I like and want. My grandpa's been going to these places since he was a kid, before the current owners even owned these operations, you know? Some of the people have been working there for a really long time. They saw my grandpa as a mentor, someone for them to look up to. He was really inspiring to a lot of people and he didn't realize that. They’d see this 85 year old man going to the meat markets every day, climbing up the little ladder that the truck guys use, and they're like ‘What am I doing complaining about my back? Look at this guy.’ Still to this day, people come up to me saying, ‘Oh, I knew your grandfather, such a good man.’
From his prime corner seat, Jordan chimes in “Jen, your butchering skills more than stand on their own. But the Moe badge is like instant cred.”
Olivia When it comes to the practical aspects of your craft, do you have a preferred knife or a favorite brand?
Jennifer I had to learn so much off the cuff. The knives that previously existed here weren't super great. So I thought, what are the guys using at the market? One of the knives I use most is from one of the guys at the meat market who just gave it to me when I inquired about his. The other knife I use most is a boning knife that has a flex to it.
Turning around and pointing to a row of knives hanging in various sizes and ages, Jen points to a large square looking blade.
The cleaver is pretty old. Just don’t ask exactly how old. I'm using a lot of old photos to piece together the history of the store. With so many of the original players now gone, photos are the only clues left that can reveal certain truths.
Olivia Is there any aspect of butchery that you wish more people were aware of, something you'd like to share?
Jennifer It can be hard as a meat eater in this day and age because there's a lot of resistance and a lot of push to seek alternatives in terms of what you're eating. I just try to be really mindful and consider the quality versus the quantity. That's something Oliviero has noticed since being in America. He's from Italy, so there's a difference in the way we eat here versus in Europe. I've gained a lot of knowledge by visiting him and seeing how people are eating there, because it tells a lot about how my family possibly used to eat in Italy before they immigrated here. I always encourage people to try many different cuts of meat and not just have something like filet or whatever the most expensive one is, because there is so much of the cow that can be put to good use in the kitchen. Going forward I want to start really sharing that with other people.
For example, I have hanger steak here, but one guy came in and asked for five pieces, and I was like, ‘No, you can't have five pieces because I don't carry five pieces.” Think of how many cows you need to kill in order to have your desired amount of hanger steak for your dinner party.
Olivia Speaking of the various cuts of meat available, do you have a favorite or a favorite recipe that goes along with it?
Jennifer Well, we're known for the ribeye. My grandpa coined this term the "I gotcha steak,” because people would come in and ask, “What are you known for?” He'd recommend the ribeye because it was his favorite. He would trim the fat, like a lot. Sometimes people said too much. But they'd still go home, cook it, and come back saying ‘That's the best steak I ever had.’ He had a really good eye for picking products out. But personally, I love bone marrow. One of my first really elevated culinary experiences involved a bone marrow dish. Last year I made a kit for Valentine's Day including my mom’s homemade meatballs, homemade sauce, and pasta. I also added bone marrow and brioche bread from a bakery nearby as a starter. I topped the kit off with shallot jam, which is like, the best thing ever. I highly recommend that you put bone marrow on toast with shallot jam and parsley. It's this amazing umami explosion.
Olivia You’re making me hungry. Speaking of your mom’s meatballs, do you have a favorite recipe to make with them?
Jennifer Oh, well. That's confidential. I don't even have the recipe for the meatballs. So I would say if you want them then you'll have to come in on a Saturday and buy them.
Olivia Have there been any unexpected inspirations that you've found through the craft of butchery or being the sole shop owner now?
Jennifer I think my inspiration initially came from a really deep place of just wanting to honor my grandparents. They spent so much of their lives just doing what they knew. I don't think my grandpa necessarily thought of this shop as the same place that maybe people think of when they see it now. This was just what they did. There wasn't romance in it - it was their job.
I'm also a bit of a historian, like I love architecture, old buildings, and antiques. All of those random hobbies and interests of mine began to work together when I started being in this space more permanently. The store has become a little baby for me; it's been really cool to watch it grow and think about how random interests throughout my life have now brought me here, and I feel like I'm just now finally using everything.
Olivia This role is a culmination of your many talents.
Jennifer Right, and on the other hand, I'm not acting, which you could call not doing what I was pursuing, but then the pandemic happened and none of my friends were really able to pursue what we thought we wanted. It was this really strange time where I came to terms with the fact that maybe I was just meant to be here. But you know, I don't own this store. It's rented. So, we'll see. I think it's just about using this time that I have and not rushing it because it's so genuine. It's my history, and I don't have to prove anything. This job is just something for me.
Olivia That feels honest. Even from the moment I walked in, I could tell how natural this feels for you. You look so at home.
Jennifer’s husband chimes in to agree.
Oliviero That's what this place is. It's a home for the people and it always has been.
Olivia Do you think you'll ever make a documentary with all of the footage that you took of your grandfather when you started working here with him?
Jennifer It would be really fun, but I've talked to people that have made documentaries, and the thing is, you never know when the arc ends. I had this idea that I was going to film a bunch of footage with him, and then maybe I would make it into a documentary. I had decided that the documentary would end at his 95th birthday party because we planned on having a big party for him here in the store with customers and family. A lot of people ended up coming. But at that point he had dementia so I wasn't really filming him a lot because it was really tough to get through. I didn't want to put any extra pressure on him for memories either.
Olivia That’s fair, but now the story is taking on a new life.
Jennifer Exactly. The store just turned 100. I just got married. That in and of itself is a really beautiful story because we met right before I started working at the butcher store. And then the first week that my husband came to New York was the first week that I started helping my grandpa. I brought him here before we even knew each other that well, aside from the messages we exchanged for so long after meeting each other briefly on vacation in Italy. When I brought him to the shop I asked, ‘Am I crazy for doing this?' He said, 'No, this place is absolutely amazing.'
In the waning afternoon light, I watch as a crowd begins to form at Albanese Meats & Poultry, learning through observation—a nod to Jen's preferred method. Amidst the buzz, the owner of Cafe Habana enters casually, extending a warm congratulations to the couple for their recent wedding, which took place just down the street in Elizabeth Street Garden. Slicing through a sizable chuck roast for a customer, Jen seamlessly juggles her duties and conversation. Oliviero scrolls through wedding day photos, one of which captures Jen in her vintage wedding dress, answering a customer’s call in the shop just moments after the ceremony concluded. Jordan’s recommendation leads me to a purchase - a country paté that single handedly guarantees my return as a loyal customer. Others enter only briefly, marveling at a store that stands as one of the last of its kind. A moment in Albanese Meats & Poultry is all it takes to realize that, indeed, this place is truly amazing.
Photos by Christian Rodriguez