With fresh meat, ‘It’s a dog’s life’ is sounding good

By Mary Reinholz

Tamara Bolling orders bacon strips for her dainty little dog Lilu when she and her husband, Tom, have Sunday brunch at Morandi on Waverly Place, an elegant West Village eatery where dogs are allowed to sit outside with their owners.

“She loves bacon. I don’t give her a lot of dog food. I’ll give her steak but only when I buy steak for my husband,” said Bolling, who was interviewed while walking Lilu, a 3-year-old white Bichon Frise, a few blocks from the restaurant they patronize.

Bolling, a vegetarian, seemed surprised when told by this reporter that some folks in the neighborhood will sometimes pay upward of $15 a pound for choice cuts of meat to feed their pets. A few will even fork up $33 a pound for filet mignon from Citarella, the gourmet market on Sixth Ave., said a butcher behind the counter.

“I wouldn’t do that,” Bolling said. But plenty of other American dog owners spend top dollar on their pampered pooches, including travelers with dogs who get served gourmet meals like Bow Wow Tenderloin of Beef at the Lowes hotel chain in the U.S. and Canada. Other hotels let pets eat off china, reported USA TODAY a couple of years ago. And, of course, high-end treats and retreats for dogs are available in the Village where there are dog spas and cage-free daycare facilities like Biscuits & Bath.

It’s unclear how widespread the trend for pricey dog food is these days during a recession so deep and wide that it has forced some New Yorkers to abandon their pets or put them up for adoption. Several people interviewed for this article believe that going to butchers for pet food is an odd choice — especially when there are far less expensive products available at pet stores, among them canned and raw foods with labels that list ingredients.

But looking for Mr. Freshmeat to nurture the barking dogs of the bourgeoisie doesn’t seem odd at all to Frank Ottomanelli, 66, who helps run the Zagat-rated Ottomanelli & Sons Meat Market with his three brothers on Bleecker St. After all, he says, he grew up in the Village and has been working for so long at the operation his father began in the mid-1940’s that “nothing seems strange now.” He believes customers are simply seeking “higher quality” when they purchase hunks of bison, rabbit, venison or boneless chicken breasts for Fido and Fifi, Raquelle and Rex.

“They love their pets,” he explained. “It’s like having a child. Some pets are like humans and they have food allergies, so owners may buy venison or buffalo. Some people buy lamb for grinding or for lamb stew. We sell marrow bones for $2.29 a pound,” he continued, noting his meat market’s cuts are “not as expensive as people think.” 

One of his regular dog-owning customers is a gent who buys lamb and beef that Ottomanelli grinds for him.

“Generally, he’ll come in every three or four weeks and get a big batch,” the butcher said. A female regular buys a 10-pound bag of chicken bones for her pets. “Sometimes she gets chicken necks and backs. I don’t know if she boils them or not,” he mused. “We’re one-on-one butchers and we’re here to please our customers.” 

How much is his filet mignon? It starts at $12.99 a pound, he replied, distinguishing his prices from competitors, “and we custom cut it.”

Behind the counter, one of his brothers sawed a glistening T-bone Porterhouse steak from the loin, then deftly trimmed fat with a 10-inch blade. Slabs of beef hung in the window while signs posted on the glass noted a sale for Black Angus cowboy steaks. Game is available like wild boar, quail, ostrich and duck. 

There is a wholesale business on the premises, as well, resulting in visits “five days a week” from a U.S.D.A. inspector to see if everything is up to code, said Frank Ottomanelli. He declined to identify his New Jersey distributor of more than 30 years, but said the brothers regularly check things out and “everything is personally selected.”

Ottomanelli owns a Bichon poodle who’s a little overweight, “like me,” he joked. The butcher has little regard for “what’s in cans these days” for pets, and said his wife feeds the dog “scraps” from their meals.

Veterinarian Theodore J. Weiner, D.V.M., of the Gotham Animal Clinic, on E. 19th St., agreed that many commercial products for pets are junk and not much different from the “processed garbage” two-legged New Yorkers consume. But Weiner warned shoppers against rushing to buy foods from butchers without advance study and recommendations from vets or nutritionists.

“If you’re going in blindly and buying on intuition over the counter, you don’t know if you’re getting the right balance of proteins and carbohydrates and fats,” he explained.

He said some of the processed pet foods disdained by purists are well prepared.

“Some of them are pretty good,” he noted, citing labels like Natural Balance, Merrick and Spot’s Stew. “These food companies have to follow certain guidelines. You have to know the requirements for your dog. Not every diet works for everyone. You have to do your homework.”

Sharon Mear, a Chelsea canine behaviorist and dog trainer who often works in the Village, finds that many folks with dogs, in fact, don’t do research on their dietary needs.

“You just can’t put down a chunk of beef in front of them,” she said.

Mear recommends carefully reading labels on major brands, noting, “If you don’t understand it, chances are it’s crap.” She said there are good books on balanced diets, such as the second edition of “Dr. Pitcairn’s Complete Guide to Natural Health for Dogs and Cats,” published by Rodale Press. She also suggests getting dietary advice from a Web site called whole-dog-journal.com, which recently ran a “tip of the week” on feeding dogs raw meaty bones. 

Lynn Pacifico, Downtown president of the Dog Owners Action Committee and co-author with Mear of a booklet on dog park etiquette, has two rescue mutts named Friar Tuck — “a big rotund guy” — and Been There, a female. She sometimes feeds both dogs for free by dumpster diving at a Greenwich Village supermarket.

“I go to the supermarket bin and get what they throw out, which is perfectly good,” she said. “Sometimes I’ll find ground beef. I’ll cook it, put in vegetables, mashed potatoes, mix it and then let it cool. I’ve often gotten free-range chicken. I could eat it. Anyone could eat it.”

Pacifico, a Freegan anti-consumerist single mom who worries about the ethics of killing animals to feed other animals, considers supermarkets off limits for healthy dog foods, claiming the commercial products they sell contain “diseased parts” that come from rendering factories. However, she said that “better, higher-end commercial pet foods” can be found at alternative outlets, like Whiskers Holistic Petcare, which has a store on E. Ninth St. and another in Astoria, Queens.

The guru and self-taught nutritionist at the East Village Whiskers is Jeff Klein, a gruff 68-year-old who walks with a limp but readily dispenses advice to customers on everything from organic foods and vitamins to homeopathic remedies. He also offers lists of veterinarians and specialists. Asked if he’s in business to give people a better-quality meal for their pets, he responded without hesitation: “People I don’t give a s— about. It’s animals that I care about: dogs and cats and rabbits.”

He and his wife, Randi, founded Whiskers in the East Village in 1988 after their beloved 120-pound Husky, now in doggy heaven, was stricken with cancer and misdiagnosed by a vet. They became involved in the holistic movement 25 years ago, and today Klein calls Whiskers not really a store “but an educational resource that sells products.” It has a large variety of frozen raw foods with brands like Bravo, Nature’s Variety and Promise, and Klein claims these foods have “all the nutrients” that dogs need.

He declined to give prices, but they’re plainly displayed on his freezers. There are raw delicacies, such as bison medallions for $17.99 and ground duck for $6.99. Prices are much lower for canned foods. Klein said he gets customers “all the time” from pet owners who have become disenchanted with the fare at supermarkets and chains like Petco. They complain, he said, that “nobody knows anything and there’s nobody to talk to.”

As he bustled about Whiskers, Klein began an animated discussion about the digestive habits of dogs with Nico Bishop, an art director who lives and works in the neighborhood. She had just walked in with her English Cocker Spaniel looking for some canned “soup” to add to his diet.

Asked if she would ever buy filet mignon for her dog at $33 a pound, Bishop, 29, a tall, comely blonde, shook her head.

“Why would anyone do that when there are all these fantastic foods here?” she asked, sounding like an advertisement. “Whiskers has raw foods and they are already prepared.” She added: “I’m a big supporter of local businesses.”

A few blocks away on Second Ave., Andrew Ilnicki, manager of the East Village Meat Market, which has been in business since 1970, said he gets a smattering of customers who want fresh meats for their dogs.

“Normally, they buy ground beef,” he said. “I think it’s easier for dogs to digest. They used to buy bones, but many are not buying them now.” He said he doesn’t get requests for chicken “because chicken has sharp bones and a dog could hurt himself.” Asked if anyone buys veal for $12 a pound for their pooches, Ilnicki said: “That’s too much for our clientele.”