Talking turkey: Buying a bird at an old-time butcher

By Wickham Boyle 

A man shouts at me over the counter, “O.K., so you are a 24-26, right?”

He is wearing a white coat splattered with blood and there is a long line forming behind me. 

No, he is not guessing my waist size; he is my most friendly butcher, one of the brothers at Ottomanelli showing me that he remembers the size of my annual Thanksgiving turkey.

How amazing that with the hundreds of folks who make the pilgrimage to this butcher shop on Bleecker St., these guys actually recall the size and type of turkey that I get.

I am not special; at Ottomanelli all the brothers are the wizards of meat. They fed me the most fabulous steaks when I was pregnant with my two kids, and have continued to put all the meat on my holiday tables for going on three decades. 

I moved to the West Village right after finishing college and it was while traversing Bleecker St., riding my bike from Perry St. across to E. Fourth St. to La MaMa, that I spied Ottomanelli’s Prime Meat Market. I had to notice them. There were goats or pheasants hanging in the window. You don’t see that too often in modern New York City. But I had spent a lot of time in Europe and had frequented butcher shops in France and Italy where all manner of weird game and actual animals hung in view for discerning customers. Europeans seem to want to know what the animal looked like before they purchase, whereas I feel modern Americans want to feel separated from their animal hosts, desiring a more sanitized presentation. I was instantly drawn to Ottomanelli and their raw genuineness.

But what kept me coming back wasn’t the exotic game or the amazing raw rubbed steaks or the Kobe beef hotdogs, but the service. I love having a human connection and it seems many of us who live Downtown feel the same way. So when Thanksgiving rolls around, I find myself wheeling by the market on Bleecker St. to put my name in for, you guessed it, a 24-to-26-pound, fresh-killed turkey.

I am not alone. Every day in the weeks leading up to the big feast, people traipse by the shop and order turkeys, pheasants, sausage stuffing and other meatly goodies. There is a ceremony to all this. For me, it is not done by phone or Internet. It is a ritual and the feeling or connectivity veritably bubbles over. When I leave Ottomanelli I feel as if the holiday season is about to begin and it gives me a giddy charge.

This is how the ordering process goes: Two days before Thanksgiving the giant butcher paper “list” goes up. That would be Tuesday and Wednesday for those of you, who like my very bright, grown daughter, only just noticed that Thanksgiving is actually Thursday every year. The “list” is the name of everyone who ordered their turkey. The pilgrims arrive early and the line snakes down Bleecker St.

I have run into the Bogosians on line, Elizabeth Streb, the choreographer; I got a great referral to a literary agent, and always encounter actors and theater friends I may have lost track of. In short, it is a sort of random reunion of the faithful.

As the world spins faster and we text, send e-mail from mobile devices and interact from across the globe with photos or Skype phones, it is a heartwarming experience to find real people who remember you without virtue of mechanical devices, just good old-fashioned customer service fueled, no doubt, by lots of premium meat eating.

Happy Turkey Day. 

Ottomanelli Prime Meat Market, 285 Bleecker St., 1-888-OTTOBRO or info@ottomanellibros.com.