Sitting behind a wooden desk in his back office, blue-rimmed glasses perched atop his nose, Nicolo “Uncle Nick” Ottomanelli smiles as Christmas arrives at his Yorkville butcher shop, Ottomanelli Brothers.
Alongside Butcher-in-Chief Francesco “Frank” Castrogiovanni, and Executive Chef Johnny Ulloa, Ottomanelli runs the 121-year-old meat store that stems from his great-great-great-great grandfather’s ice-lined pushcart in 1900 lower Manhattan.
Ottomanelli grew up around the area on Perry Street and says that “hard work” and “long hours” were the core values that he learned in his close-knit Italian-American household. “And the so-called ‘passion,’” he says. “I think in order to be successful in anything, you really gotta want to do it. If you really, really want to do it, and you enjoy doing it, it isn’t work.”
A former Marine with unwavering discipline, Ottamanelli kept his options open after finishing his service. “But as soon as I came home, my mother says, ‘Your dad is very busy. Can you help him out?’ So I went to my dad, he says, ‘It’s good to see you,’ all that, and he goes, ‘Can you put a butcher apron on?’”
Ottomanelli then started a half century-spanning career as the purveyor of some of the most treasured meat in the city. Decades ago, Knicks great, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, even worked for his family upon retirement.
Archetypal Store Owner
Today, Ottomanelli emerges as something of an anomaly: the butcher in a city lined with chain stores and supermarkets.
His tight shop, which is marked by a miniature silver pig upon entrance and is flanked by iron benches on which patrons sip coffee, even renders Ottomanelli as the archetypal store owner who rises early, lifts the gate and greets his morning customers.
“It isn’t a cold feeling,” he says of his establishment, which displays prime rib steaks in addition to strip steaks, porterhouses and filets. “It isn’t a supermarket where people don’t know your name. Here, we know most of our customers by first name, what their likes are, what their dislikes are, their families. It’s great.”
Ottomanelli, whose brother and business partner, Joe, passed away, continues that the sole butcher is a “dying breed.” He conveys deep pride in Ottomanelli Bros., however, and says, “There’s really no secret - it’s all about doing the right thing. Growing up in a tight-knit Italian family, my dad would always say in Italian, ‘You know what the right thing is. Just do the right thing.’ And I tell my guys, ‘Listen, I would never sell something to a customer that I wouldn’t bring home to my grandchildren; if there’s any doubt at all, throw it out.’ And I really mean that.”
“Bigness is Badness”
Despite the success of Ottomanelli Bros., which has maintained several establishments over the years including a full-scale butcher shop at the Herald Square Macy’s, the store has struggled with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Like many restaurants, in fact, Ottomanelli Bros. closed its doors for several months and only made deliveries. Unlike most eateries, they did so through their own delivery men and not through Grubhub or Seamless, a hint of Ottomanelli’s insistence on quality.
“You have to know when to say, ‘Just wait a minute. Let’s take care of what we do have and, if it needs any tweaking or fine-tuning, we can do it.’ I’ve always said, ‘Bigness is badness.’ Bigness is great if you can control it 24/7, which is possible but you better have the right staff. That’s why the staff is so, so important. It is. I can’t put enough emphasis on hiring the right people, teaching them your values, the Ottomanelli values, or what we call, ‘The Ottomanelli Way.’”
While countless restaurants throughout the city struggled to find waiters to fill shifts, each of Ottomanelli’s seven employees showed up for work daily. “It was good,” he says. “We all wore masks and made sure we all got our shots. Every person who is in my store has gotten their shots plus the booster shots. And of course we’re doing our part in sanitizing sometimes three times a day, the equipment and everything, so thank God.”
Even as an older butcher/proprietor, Ottomanelli stays apprised of recent developments in the meat industry. “We deal a lot with all-natural beef, grass-fed and stuff,” he says. “It’s so important. So, yes, the industry has changed, and it will continue to change, with a lot of emphasis on organic meat, and we handle some of that also.”
Still, during the holiday season, many of Ottomanelli’s customers get more traditional meat for their dinners. “We do try to retain the spirit of Christmas,” he says. “We appreciate customers calling us in advance and ordering their Christmas prime rib and filet mignon. We appreciate that because it gives us a chance to put it aside and, y’know, different ways of cutting it. And of course we have recipes that go with the product that say how long to cook it and so on.”
As Ottomanelli turns the corner to his shop, he waves to his regulars on the benches, nods to his butchers preparing holiday orders, and gets back to work.
“I tell my guys, ‘Listen, I would never sell something to a customer that I wouldn’t bring home to my grandchildren.’” Nicolo Ottomanelli