Last week just a few steps from my door at 252 Elizabeth Street I walked into the last remaining butcher shop in Little Italy, Albanese Meats and Poultry. The neighborhood's current name is NoLita, or North of Little Italy, but the old timers call the area the Lower East Side, as it was historically known. Moe Albanese, the 87-year-old proprietor, presides alone over the shop which was started by his parents in 1923 just across the road to where he is now located, at no. 238, as he has done for the past 9 years.

In the early 20th Century Elizabeth Street was an Italian ghetto, crammed with immigrant families who were fed and supplied by their local general stores, bakeries, cheese shops, and fishmongers. There were no less than 6 butcher shops in the block of Elizabeth Street where Moe is located. Moe’s mother, Mary, was born on this block; his father, Vincenzo, a butcher from Sicily, emigrated to New York from Polizzi Generosa, a tiny, hidden, hilltop town near Palermo. (This was a remarkable coincidence for me; the grandparents of the actor Vincent Schiavelli, a friend I wrote about earlier in this blogalso came from Polizzi; Vincent wrote about his family's ancestral home in his lovely book Many Beautiful Things, for which I cooked a book signing dinner at Chez Panisse many years ago.) Moe’s father didn't speak English when he arrived in America, and they agreed his mother would help the customers in the front of the shop, while his dad would cut meat in the back. Papa Vincenzo died at a young age and left his widow and their son, Moe, to run the shop. That was in 1954. Moe and his mother continued that way until Mama Albanese passed in 2002, at 97. Moe has run the shop alone since then.

Moe cuts meat to order, as he's always done, and chats alongs cheerily as he works. In the old days, you couldn't sell pre-cut meat to the patrons, quite unlike today when, alas, it’s all cut ahead and wrapped in plastic. Though he has a few grass fed items, most of his beef is “grass-fed, corn-finished” in the current parlance, and comes from the Midwest via a long-time source in Pennsylvania. It’s superbly marbled and full of flavor. It looks beautiful. 

My first steak from Moe's, was a beautiful, perfect, thick-cut rib steak that I saw sitting on the counter (was he going to take that one home?). He said, pointing to its spectacular web of marbling, “You want that one? Well, I guess you know your meat.” As Moe began to cut away the thick fat from the cap, along with a little gristle, he muttered to himself, and partly to me, that he would never make his money back from this one, because of the amount of fat he’d have to trim. I asked him to kindly leave it on. I'd wanted it left on anyway. 

The Italians are mostly gone from Elizabeth Street now, and the street is thick with boutiques selling expensive clothing, shoes, handbags, and other designer gifts. In nice weather Moe sits out front of his shop on a metal chair and looks up and down the street, silently watching the passersby. He nods quietly at the affluent young folks who Moe says don’t cook at home any more; they're usually headed to one of the swanky little cafés or restaurants that now define the area. Moe’s friend Vinny Vella, colloquially named “The Mayor of Elizabeth Street,” whose father ran a fish shop for many years around the block on Mott Street, hangs out at Moe’s along with a few other old timers who have long populated Elizabeth Street. Moe's children long ago went into other professions such as banking, insurance, teaching, and lawyering, as often happens in modern times. It’s a stirring thought that Moe is the last of a kind. Watching him, you can witness the passing of an era.  

Here's a little video about Moe made by his granddaughter, Val, 
and another of him cutting steaks.