American story: meat the last butcher in Little Italy
Moe Albanese is the last butcher standing in New York’s Little Italy. His father, Vincenzo, was a butcher from Polizzi Generosa, in Sicily. Moe’s mother, Mary, also of Sicilian descent, could speak some English.
“My father said to her, ‘You ask the customers what they want and I’ll cut the meat’,” says Moe, who was delivered by midwives at a home birth on this same block in 1925 and has never left the area.
Albanese Meats & Poultry on Elizabeth St is a relic of New York. It is now being crowded out by snappy boutiques and, just to the south, by Chinatown.
It is the story of America. When the Italians arrived in this area, they displaced the Irish.
“We moved into their church,” says Moe, referring to the Italian takeover over St Patrick’s Cathedral, just around the corner, which in its vaults contains the tombs of many an early New York bishop.
And then the Italians, as it goes in this ever-revolving immigrant nation, got pushed out by the cost of living and the changing imperatives of the streets.
A few blocks away is Broadway, the femoral artery of Manhattan. “In the old days, it was all clothing factories along Broadway,” Moe says, who has that old-time New Yorker way of twisting down on the sound of each word before it leaves his mouth.
There were none of the big name shops, which every contemporary visitor is compelled to visit on first arriving in New York. It was a working district and, on Elizabeth St, Moe’s father and mother were one of six or seven butcher shops, feeding the large Italian settlement.
Moe’s dad died young and he and his younger brother, Vincent, were taught the art of butchering by their mother, who died at the age of 97 in 2002.
“Butchering’s changed,” says Moe, at the age of 87. “Today you have box meat. We used to skin calves here, bring in hinds. Today, our only hanging meat is the rib. But we don’t pre-cut anything.”
The difference between Moe’s shop and most other butchers across New York is that even though they don’t carve up whole animals, they cut sections and mince meat to order, before your eyes. There are no vacuum-sealed packets. There’s no need to examine the fine print for additives.
Where Moe lives, in the heart of young, fast-moving, fashion-centric New York, you’d think the locals would all know how to knock up the fast, good dinners that mass-saturation food preachers Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay (“Easy. Simple. Done”) are always banging on about.
But it’s all television. The reality is that buying a steak, and turning it on a grill, is a reality too far.
“It was good when you had Europeans living here, but these young kids don’t cook and they don’t know how to cook,” Moe says, recalling the time when every Italian family ate home-cooked around the table.
“I gotta explain to them that this is an old-fashioned meat market.”
He says he doesn’t resent the young people moving in on his world. They didn’t change it. His own people did, by moving away.
Moe remembers when Elizabeth St would close down as the various Italian clans celebrated their patron saint days with parades.
For the Albanese family, of mountainous Polizzi Generosa, in the Sicilian province of Palermo, their patron was the Franciscan priest, Saint Gandolfo, who in his time was a devout avoider of fame who was nevertheless sought out as a miracle healer.
Moe and Vincent went to Polizzi Generosa five years ago. Their first ever visit to the fabled homeland.
“We went there and they said, ‘Who are you looking for?’ We said, ‘Our father’s name was Albanese.’ They said, ‘Three quarters of the town is named Albanese.’”
Told there is an Australian politician with the name Albanese, and asked what traits this possible long-lost relative should exemplify as bearer of his name, Moe says: “Be honest. And it’s all about families.”
Paul’s columns are published exclusively in News Ltd iPad applications on Saturdays.
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