No red meat for dinner for a Staten Island butcher

May 8th, 2019  |  Published in New York Sits Down to Dinner 2019, Uncategorized

Columbia Meat Market. Photo: Jinna Wang.

The oldest butcher shop in Staten Island has been in operation since 1921. Owner Vincent “Vinny” Chirico, 61, stands at the bandsaw cutting a rack of short ribs to size, wearing a white butcher’s coat and frameless glasses. He could pass for a laboratory scientist if not for the few blood stains on his apron. This was his first week back on the job full-time after a heart operation, which he said was “not from eating meat. It runs in the family.” T

The Chiricos have run Columbia Meat Market since 1970, when Vinny’s father, Luciano, and uncle John took over the place. The Chirico brothers had worked in butchery in Calabria, Italy,and picked up the trade again after immigrating to the United States. Vinny, then 12 years old, was needed in the family business for his English skills. 

Luciano spoke very little English, and “my uncle was not fluent in English, so I wrote all the checks out and he was able to survive the week.” said Chirico.

Chirico’s father was one of nine siblings, which means a large number of brothers, nephews, and cousins rotated through the family butcher shop over the years. Today, Vinny is the only one left in the business, running the shop with four full-time and one part-time employees and no succession plan. Chirico has no children of his own and no family member looking to get back into the butchery business. “I’m going to try to last as long as I can! A hundred years is definitely the goal. Hopefully we’ll be successful.” he said.  

Chirico has witnessed waves of changes during his 49 years in the neighborhood. “When we took over, this area was mostly Italian, Irish, and Polish,” he said. “Then the Italians moved to Jersey. African Americans moved in, there are a lot of people from Latin countries.” But in the last five years, another wave of demographic changes has begun: “Now there are a lot of young people. We have some Asian neighbors now. Everyone’s expecting the same gentrification that happened in downtown Brooklyn.”

Chirico at the butcher shop. Photo: Jinna Wang.

But for now, the store’s main customer base comes from the nearby Richmond Terrace Houses, a low-income government housing project. Many customers are on SNAP benefits, which is reflected in the meat market’s sales: “In the beginning of the month, there’s steak or crab legs. And at the end, it’s a pack of franks.” Chirico helps out wherever he can, giving food or credit to people in need. When asked if people ever pay him back, Chirico shrugs it off: “We help what we can help.” 

Chirico usually gets up around 6am to get to the shop by 7 a.m. After he and his employees open at 8 a.m., he finds time for his other role as president of the Jersey Street Merchant Association: “We try to get the children involved in the neighborhood. We are planning a fall harvest. We do a Christmas party where we give out presents.” The side of one of the meat refrigerators is covered in photos of Halloween trick-or-treaters from last year. When a small boy comes into the shop with his mother and sister, he points out one of the photos: “Hey! There’s me!” Their mother beckons the kids over to where Chirico stands, a fun-sized package of candy in each hand: “Mr. Vinny has some candy for you. Say thank you!”

During a hectic day, it’s easy for Chirico to skip lunch all together. His employees take turns going on half-hour lunch breaks, and Chirico usually lets everyone go first, taking his meal around 4 p.m. or not at all. Today was relatively slow, and the team closes up shop right after 6 p.m. After a half hour of cleaning, Chirico grabs a pack of chicken he sliced for dinner. His fiancé, Lynetta Slayton, has a 10-year-old daughter, Nnenna, and it’s Chirico’s job today to pick her up from the babysitter where she usually eats dinner.

Chicken, asparagus, and couscous for a healthy dinner. Photo: Jinna Wang.

At home, the 48-year-old Slayton is the cook. The couple met at church, dated for three years, and have been engaged for seven months. “She was my angel when I got sick. She took care of me.” Chirico became a bit emotional when recalling his heart condition and subsequent surgery. Looking over at Slayton cooking in the kitchen, Chirico smiles and wags his fingers in her direction: “We won’t blame it on the meat because she doesn’t cook that much meat.” 

Slayton works as the assistant vice president of global commercial banking at Bank of America in midtown Manhattan, which means occasional long hours and late nights in addition to a long commute from where the couple lives in Graniteville, Staten Island. But eating healthy is a priority for her, and she makes the time to cook meals for her family: “I want to keep my family healthy. I want us to be around for a long time.” Her efforts have certainly paid off. Slayton decided to get healthy in 2015 and has lost close to 60 pounds, and Chirico has lost almost 30 since joining her efforts.

Tonight, Slayton makes pan-seared chicken breasts in white wine sauce with a side of asparagus and couscous. She measures everything carefully, heating up a small amount of oil for the chicken. “Because Vincent is my butcher, I get the best quality meat sliced the way I like it.” Slayton said, laughing. She tries to use less salt in her cooking, and doesn’t remember the last time she had red meat. 

“It’s a lot of chicken, a lot of fish.” Chirico chimed in.  

“He always complains, but he always says it’s yummy,” said Slayton.

Slayton and Chirico at dinner. Photo: Jinna Wang.

At the dinner table, Chirico debates and decides to go for a second piece of chicken. “That means he liked it,” Slayton said, with a smile. She turned to her fiancé: “I got to tell you honey, you cut these perfectly.” 

“Give the butcher a tip.” said Chirico, as he takes another bite.  

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