Family butcher keeping alive Little Italy’s old-time flavor

Jennifer Prezioso with her grandfather Moe Albanese outside the family butcher shop on Elizabeth St. Photo by Madelyn Segarra

BY GABE HERMAN | Albanese Meats and Poultry, the family butcher shop that has been an Elizabeth St. staple for nearly a century, has weathered many changes to the area. But it now faces an uncertain future as rents continue to rise and gentrification has left dwindling numbers of regular customers.

Moe Albanese, 94, is still at the shop, which he has run since the 1950s, first with his mother Mary and then on his own after her death in 2002 at age 97.

Moe can still be seen every day sitting out front on the sidewalk, watching over the block and greeting the many friends and well-wishers who pass by throughout the day. But it is Moe’s granddaughter, Jennifer Prezioso, who has come on board to try to revitalize business. She has been at the shop since November. They are now on a one-year lease through mid-2019, at which point, they’ll see if it’s viable for the business to continue at the spot.

“I wanted to commit a whole year to being here,” Prezioso said, “and cleaning up the store and trying to get more business and customers, because the retail portion has been slowly declining over a number of years. He can’t do what he used to do.”

Prezioso, who has worked in real estate, acting and casting, is minimizing commitments in those areas while focusing on the shop.

“So many people, they come in and they’re just so nostalgic and it brings them back to a time when their family was a butcher or they had a place they went to,” she said. “And so, there’s something there that I’m trying to capture and capitalize on, in a small way, just so that we can keep the business afloat, because a lot of people don’t really cook anymore. A lot of people pass the store and think it’s closed, just because it looks so old. They’re like, ‘Oh it can’t be in business anymore.’ So right now, I’m in the stages of trying to get it out there.”

The showcase for the meats was recently restored and many old-school objects remain, such as classic scales, butcher knives, lights from the 1920s, and even a pile of the family’s vinyl records that includes Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. Collages of old photos of the family and the block hang on one side of the small interior, along with a couch and table that Prezioso said she has finally convinced her grandfather to get rid of.

Prezioso also wants to fix up the place’s exterior signage. The faded sign outside across the top, for example, which reads “Albanese Meats & Poultry,” is actually a relic from when filming was done there for “The Godfather Part III.”

Each window currently reads “Lutzi’s Butcher Shop” for planned filming of the second season of the television show “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel,” which also filmed there for its pilot.

Prezioso said those signs will be gone soon and she is working with a friend to come up with new designs.

The shop used to have the classic butcher look of hanging meats, but Prezioso noted that those would be health violations these days. So she is looking into other objects to fill the store, including some for one-time customers like tourists, such as vintage kitchenware, linens, postcards or prints of Moe.

“They love the experience of the store but there’s nothing for them to get,” she said. “My job now is to try and figure out what would they want. It would be something cool, not cheesy.”

The shop was founded in 1923 by Moe’s parents in a spot across the street, and has been at its current address at No. 238 Elizabeth since 1940. Moe’s father died in 1952, which led Moe to partner with his mother in running the store starting in the ’50s. The family’s presence on the block also included running a steak house across the street.

Recent changes to the neighborhood have included fewer families and fewer people cooking for themselves. Then there is the convenience of supermarkets like Whole Foods, which offer a one-stop option that is open longer hours.

Albanese’s hours are from noon to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and they are closed on Sunday. Prezioso said it’s hard to stay open more because she is also her grandfather’s caretaker.

Moe Albanese with his mother Mary Albanese, when the two ran the butcher shop together. Courtesy of Jennifer Prezioso

Despite challenges, Prezioso is grateful for the time she gets to spend with her granddad while learning of his world on Elizabeth St.

“That’s a really special part, that I get to see him in all aspects of himself, not just Grandpa,” she said. “This is a special moment in time that I don’t know if I’ll ever have again, especially here in this store. So that’s definitely something I’m treasuring right now, just being here.”

In terms of changing local demographics, Prezioso said, “It’s hard because you don’t have people regularly buying stuff.” Though she added, “We do have people for sure.”

This includes longtime customers, like a 96-year-old man who lives at Broome and Mott Sts. with his wife and still comes occasionally to buy meats. Prezioso said that he and Moe have “known each other since the war,” meaning World War II.

There’s also Calvin Hewitt, a customer since 1972 who discovered the shop when he would go through the neighborhood as a Department of Sanitation worker. He would exchange hellos with Mary Albanese, who was in her usual seat outside, and that was when he looked up and realized that it was a butcher shop, which he and his wife had been searching for at the time.

Hewitt and Moe became good friends over the years, and got to know each other’s families. Hewitt, who is black, recalled Moe speaking up for him to defuse possible racial tensions on the block.

“Any time I went outside,” Hewitt said, “Moe would walk with me, and he put his hand around my shoulder to let everyone know this is my friend, this is Moe’s friend. So that kept everybody cool, so I got a chance. People knew me then.”

Hewitt remembered his first time walking in the shop and seeing Moe and several friends sitting around chatting, a neighborhood feel that Hewitt said has faded over time. Hewitt ordered two Porterhouse Black Angus steaks and when he returned two weeks later for another order, Moe said he couldn’t sell to him.

“I said, ‘What do you mean?’” Hewitt recalled. Then everyone in the shop laughed and he realized he was the butt of the joke. “I went along with it and everybody was cool, and from then on that was it, and I’ve never stopped going.”

Moe Albanese in front of his Elizabeth St. butcher shop. Photo by Joe Albanese

Hewitt, now retired, lives in Queens and still comes to the shop once a month to see Moe and buy meats. Hewitt remembered of one trip, “I took my daughter there, and as we’re going into the shop, she says, ‘You know, Moe, you take very good care of my family.’ Moe just smiled. It’s been a great relationship. I think the world of the guy. He’s been square with me from Day One.”

Hewitt does miss the old feel of the area.

“The thing was,” he said, “you met the guys in the neighborhood, that grew up in the neighborhood, that Moe went to school with.”

Although some of those people have died, Hewitt said the change is also due to the changing nature of the area’s residents.

“In the old neighborhood, people are friendly,” he said. “Now with gentrification, people don’t know you and you don’t know them.”

Another friend of Moe who is a regular customer, Giorgio, visited on a recent afternoon and chatted with the veteran butcher on seats just outside the shop.

Giorgio lived three blocks away for 17 years before recently moving to Midtown. But he still comes back several times a week to visit and support the shop. He didn’t discover the place until about three years ago, which he regrets because for many years he and his wife walked by and saw the shop closed or didn’t believe that an old-school place like it could still be open.

“First, I just purchased steaks,” he said, which was enough to keep him coming back. Referring to a sign in the window for “Home of the ‘Gotcha Steaks,’” meaning you’re hooked on the meat once you try it, Giorgio said, “That’s actually factual. It’s really how it works. If you buy them, you come back.

“But then,” Giorgio added, “I noticed one of the pictures that has a connection with Sicily, which is also where I was born.” After talking with Moe, they discovered that their families came from areas only about 20 miles apart. “It’s really close, and we speak the same dialect, too,” he noted.

Giorgio said he loves hearing from Moe about “how it used to be, all the Sicilians living on this block. It’s always a fun conversation with Moe,” he said. “You always get a lot of information that you cannot get; there are things that only he would know because he’s the only one really left.”

Although Moe stays in touch with some longtime customers, he said it’s “not as much as previous years. People, I guess, moved out of the neighborhood.” He shrugged, “It’s all different, and you’ve got a young crowd now.”

Moe plans to stay at the shop and never fully retire.

“It gives me something to do,” he said. “What would I do at home? Here I am talking to you, I wouldn’t be able to do that at home.”

And would Moe like to see his granddaughter take over the shop and run it for years to come?

“Sure,” he said. “She’s got my blessing.”

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