Even on a hot day in July, everyone wants to see the butcher in Little Italy.
In this case, it’s Jennifer Prezioso, the fourth-generation butcher and sole owner and worker of Albanese Meats & Poultry, who’s maintaining the family legacy that over the summer turned 100 years old.
Step inside the store, and you’ll find a display case of bone-in rib-eye, whole chickens, and Italian sausages. Dangling from the windows and suspended poles, there are boxes of dried pasta and fake sausages by Yuki & Daughters, and a wall dotted with postcards, old photographs, and painted portraits. On my first visit, I was overwhelmed by the dizzying number of trinkets, enough to fit in their own museum, so I decided to sit and listen.
As customers walk through the door, she tells one about the Tuscan-style pates, pork rinds, and salumi. To another regular, she hands over their standard-order duck breast.
Once the store empties and the door nudges to a close, she gets honest.
“I don’t make any money from chitchatting with people all day,” says Prezioso. “That’s a big thing I want to work on for the next phase of the store. How can we have people come in and enjoy the space and also help the store make money?”
It’s a fair question. At a time when many New Yorkers are sourcing their meats from delivery services and gargantuan grocery chains, the reality of running a mom-and-pop butcher shop in 2023 is not lost on Prezioso. Albanese Meats & Poultry isn’t just any butcher shop either. Snugly sandwiched in the middle of historic Elizabeth Street, it’s the last one of its kind in Little Italy.
For many years, the shop has served thousands of customers, from newly arrived Italian immigrants to the early artists of Nolita, and everyone in between. It’s been the setting for numerous documentaries, New York historical food tours, and even famed series such as The Godfather Part III and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. No surprise why — its mint green walls and bright red brick, faded newspaper clippings and family photos, as well as a timeless collection of vintage butcher supplies, are beautiful mementos in the ever-evolving New York.
Throughout the last century, butcher shops such as Albanese Meats & Poultry have become synonymous with New York’s cultural image. But despite their legacy, these spots have faced financial setbacks. Staubitz Market, a Cobble Hill neighborhood gem and the oldest butcher shop in Brooklyn since 1917, was recently “at risk of bankruptcy and complete failure,” according to an Eater dispatch.
It wasn’t always this way. Back in the early 20th century, Elizabeth Street was home to eight or so Italian butchers, all dishing out specialties like rib-eye steak and sausages. Prezioso’s great-grandfather Vincenzo Albanese belonged to a line of butchers in Sicily and opened the shop upon immigrating. But soon her great-grandmother Mary, who grew up on Elizabeth Street, took charge of most operations with her fluent English and pro knife skills.
“As my grandpa used to say, she became better than him,” Prezioso recalls. “He was very slow and methodical, and my great-grandma was very quick and efficient.”
When Prezioso’s great-grandfather died in his 50s, her grandfather Moe began taking shifts to assist his mother and inherit the butcher trade. When she passed, Moe took over the operation at 78 years old, an age when everyone else around him appeared to be retiring.
It’s impossible to talk about Albanese Meats & Poultry without mentioning the late Moe Albanese, known to locals as “Moe the Butcher.” Before he died from COVID-19 in 2020, Moe was often seen sitting outside the store on a chair, watching over Elizabeth Street. He’d invite customers into the store and joke in Italian or his Sicilian dialect with his friends. To new customers deciding what to buy, he’d always convince them to take home his “gotcha” rib-eye steak — he knew once you had a taste, you’d be an Albanese Meats & Poultry customer for life.
Prezioso’s own journey to becoming a butcher was not as straightforward. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Prezioso began visiting Albanese Meats & Poultry at a young age, though she never expected to wind up as the shop’s owner. Still, she and Moe became tight, especially since they lived close to each other, and he would come over to eat dinner, help with homework, and watch New York Rangers games. “We would just have fun together,” she says.
She left the city to attend Boston University, where she studied acting seriously and fully intended to pursue theater in New York. When she moved back, she’d visit Moe at the butcher shop, but mostly to introduce her friends to her grandfather and show off the store’s vintage items.
The turning point came in 2017 when Moe took a wrong turn while driving. Though he made it home safely, Prezioso offered to help drive him to work the following day. “And then he literally called me the next morning and asked if he could if I was going to pick him up,” she says. “He’s never asked for anything in his life. He always did everything himself. And that’s why I said, ‘Okay, no problem.’ I canceled whatever I was doing that day.” That year, Moe was 93.
Soon after, Prezioso found an acting gig not too far from Elizabeth Street and began visiting her grandfather regularly after work and driving him home. For the first time ever, she observed Moe in his natural habitat: interacting with customers and slicing the meats. One day, she glanced at the paperwork scattered around the store and realized Moe had been undercharging for his meat. It was then that she began helping him organize things and filming him for Instagram.
After that day, she wasn’t too sure of her involvement in the store, especially since she had never worked in a food store or a restaurant before. But she kept visiting, listening, and learning, and found that the history of Little Italy and the store’s family heirlooms continued to rope her in. At the end of 2019, she asked Moe to add her to the lease, and in her own words, “that’s how it started.”
More than just being a great teacher, Moe’s mentorship set the course for Prezioso. Starting early in the morning, Moe began showing Prezioso his lifelong craft, whether butchering a lamb for Easter or deboning pork. He introduced her to his friends at the Meatpacking District, some of whom he’d known for decades. The world Moe knew from the inside out became Prezioso’s.
Soon enough, Prezioso began poring over books and videos on butchery on her own time. During less busy hours, she started serving customers and sprucing up the store. Like magic, old and new customers began trickling in. “And they’re like, ‘Oh, my God, you could take over the store. This is amazing.’ Then new people were coming because I was putting signs in the window. People were like, ‘I didn’t know this was open still!’”
By 2019, she was essentially running the butcher shop, with Moe still coming by every day and acting as her biggest supporter. “He would be tired of saying the same thing over and over to people,” she recalls. “He’d be like, ‘Oh, my granddaughter is gonna tell you all about the store.’”
Since becoming a full-fledged butcher, Prezioso has joined a small but mighty group of young female butchers around the country, a list that includes Cara Nicoletti of Seemore Meats as well as Erika Nakamura and Jocelyn Guest behind the virtual store Butcher Girls.
One hundred years later, the shop continues to cycle in customers of Albanese’s past and those newly acquainted with Nolita. Continuing on Moe’s legacy, Prezioso seems to be a big part of why people keep returning.
Jane Swavely, a longtime resident of Nolita who also knew both Moe and Mary, is all too eager to sing Prezioso’s praises. “We know all the people on the block, and Jen is a bright light on Elizabeth Street,” says Swavely. “What’s so nice about Jen [is] she creates a community here.”
Much newer to the neighborhood is Lori Schacter, who started coming in 2021. Ever since her first order, she’s been a loyal customer. “I’d rather support a small business and get my meat from a place like this than Whole Foods. It’s way more fresh,” she says. “And I mean, have you ever had a steak from Whole Foods? It’s very tough and not the same.”
Even with a loyal following and a legacy, Albanese Meats & Poultry still faces financial hurdles. For starters, it doesn’t own the building. On a street as historical as Elizabeth, Prezioso tells me that her storefront, and neighboring businesses, don’t receive commercial rent stabilization. Meanwhile, the luxury shops around her seem to come and go, with a turnaround being as quick as half a year. “You’re here for 100 years and there’s no thank you from the city,” she says.
Prezioso plans to introduce a few more initiatives to the shop after Labor Day, including new tote bags and plans for future meal kits. Later on, she hopes to reimagine the space for events, pop-ups, and other storytelling ventures. Ultimately, her customers will help shape the future of the butcher shop too, and Prezioso engages with them as much as possible on Instagram at @moethebutcher.
And as momentous as the 100th year has been for Albanese Meats & Poultry, Prezioso was hesitant to throw a huge celebration, for fear of bad luck.
“Even though I wasn’t part of all the 100 years, there’s something worth celebrating that I brought to this part. We don’t know how many more years we have,” Prezioso says.
“There’s so much history here, so much family that lives here, and I really do feel that all the time when I’m here,” she says. “I feel like they are all happy watching me. And maybe that’s why I just kind of am quietly doing all of it.”