A behind-the-scenes look at the Italian meat-seller shows dedication to a fresh and health-conscious attitude.
Like it or not, it’s gotten increasingly harder to ignore. E. coli and ground beef can’t seem to realize they’re not made for each other. Pesky journalists, novelists, filmmakers, and peer reviewed science keeps pointing out that our food is making us sick, that factory farming-with a profit-driven modus operandi embodied by the hot dog-may not be a good idea after all.
Meanwhile American beef has been about as popular abroad as Obama’s predecessor. And those vegans are starting to make (some) sense, in that: We. Need. To. Change. Our. Food. Supply.
Thank God, then, for the organic movement, locovores, Food Inc., The Ominivore’s Dilemma, etc., and the ensuing greater public awareness that’s pushing us to revert things back to those good old days before the post-war boom that put convenience and profit margins ahead of common sense. But, then again, thank God for the Italians.
Them and any people we welcomed to our shores with the temerity to keep doing things the “good old fashioned way,” because the alternative was just plain stupid. So heap that praise on Altomonte’s Italian Market and Delicatessan while you’re at it.
“We try to do things the same way as when I first opened,” founder Mike Grispino says, alluding to the Germantown meat purveyor he opened in 1971, ahead of moving to his current location in Warminster 10 years later (they added a Doylestown location four years ago). It’s vocation rooted in both family and tradition, which Grispino carried over with him from Calabria, where he first took blade to beast at the age of 12.
In talking to his son, Vince Grispino, I’m quick to mention that being anachronistic is far from a bad thing.
“Exactly, and customers recognize the quality and continue to come back for that,” he says. He points to their ground beef as a glaring example. “Most of the supermarket ground beef is from 50-100 animals, so they don’t know where it comes from,” he says. In contrast, Altomonte’s ground beef emanates from the one or two steers a week they process on the premises.
No cryo-bags with pre-cut selections like in nearly all supermarkets out there, whose product comes from a myriad of feedlots way out West (just ask your local butcher, as I did at the Giant at Street and York roads. Dry-aging is the domain only of specialty butchers and restaurants).
Altomonte’s receives quartered steers, through Philadelphia distributor Kissin Fresh Meats, that originate from smaller, local farms in the Lancaster and Maryland areas, Vince says. All the cutting is done in the shop, thus furthering the ideal of “the less hands in it the better” that the Grispino family so readily embraces.
To check it out, I accepted a pseudo-apprenticeship for several hours with butcher and meat purchaser C.J. Barut, who started on the chef’s side of the deli (they run a full service kitchen for deli prep and their prepared foods counter) four years ago.
“I wanted to see the other side of it,” he said, speaking to a chef’s natural inclination to wonder about the origins of the food he prepares.
We enter the walk-in freezer to behold a glorious sight most of us have only seen in Rocky: quarters of beef hanging leg first to dry age in the frigid air.
“By the time we get them, they’ve been dry aged a week and a half. We age them another five days,” Barut says.
The process serves two purposes: moisture evaporation creates richer flavors, while the elapsed time enables enzymes to break down connective tissue, thereby tenderizing the meat and making it much easier to break down.
Returning with a small section of the upper middle rib, Barut quickly proceeds to rhapsodize about his favorite cut: “A lot of people think the bigger the eye the better the ribeye, but it’s the ribeye closer to the chuck [the upper front by the shoulder] that’s the best.”
I can hardly disagree, as the extensive marbling speaks for itself. It’s the ribeye and the adjacent porterhouse that are selected for further stays in the freezer of up to 30-35 days, given demand and a customer’s preference, that is, willingness to pay for the pampered treatment, so to say.
While other cuts are covered in paper as they dry age, the ribeye and porterhouses are left exposed; once days really start to rack up, margarine is rubbed on the surface to prevent the protein from breaking down too fast.
From there, he proceeds to remove the skirt steak from the inside of the middle rib ahead of showing me the beauty that is the short rib. A small hook curving from a wooden handle holding the meat in place, the dry aging shows its effect; the skirt is pulled away with ease, a boning knife needed only to finish the job, while a mini-scimitar-like butcher knife lay menacingly nearby on the wooden block. “All about finding the fat, the connective tissue seams,” Barut says.
Another hefty cut runs down from the porterhouse to the sirloin (closer to the upper rear), with Barut’s admonishments revealing subtleties of the trade; much like any fat with bruising or USDA dyemarks, he underscores the avoidance of the urea rich fat surrounding the kidneys.
And then there’s the sweat glands, nasty little cartilage like bands that “stink to high hell” if you make the mistake of grinding them up. Other than that, all trimmings are used to make a ground beef that ends up with an 80-20 percent meat-to-fat ratio, with the chuck tender from the shoulder often a top, lean choice for pushing that balance well away from fat.
The bones as well are utilized, as the staff wastes little of each animal; first roasted, the bones are then boiled with stew meat, vegetables, and spices to create beef stock, a requisite staple for any serious chef that can be had on the cheap.
Trying to find the gap between the sirloin and porterhouse, Barut goes in with the boning knife; I see it’s the opposite of finding a stud in drywall after he hands over the knife. A bonesaw is needed only for the last few inches and then we’re left to marvel at the tail of the porterhouse, a “beautiful piece of meat,” he says, given “the marbling around it, the fat running through it.”
But nothing seems to come apart easier than the shin meat and hamstring of one hindquarter; hanging from a hook in the walk-in, the cutting of the Achilles leads to a near gravity-induced avalanche at times.
By this point, not surprisingly, I’m very hungry. From a primordial part of my being, I am very, very hungry.
Earlier, while Barut removed a full filet mignon-“there are so many unnamed pieces of meat far better,” he says, while adding, “but with the right marbling, it can be phenomenal” - I witnessed Raffaele ‘Ralph’ Grispano, Mike’s long serving brother, finish up the day’s sausages by cranking out the remainder of a batch of hot Italian pork sausages.
As with the beef, they receive their pigs quartered from the same supplier (as well as turkeys and chickens; at Thanksgiving they call upon a local farm that, Barut says, “offers a much more humane alternative”).
The Boston Butt, or select cut above the shoulder, is used. Ralph, being one of two people who follow a 40 year-old recipe, bones out the pork, grinds it, and adds spices (in this case, salt, pepper, paprika, crushed red pepper, cayenne) ahead of running it through a mixer/grinder that extrudes the mixture into all natural porcine intestinal casings, rather than plastic or cellulose casings used in making mass-produced sausages.
At another stage, Ralph is pounding out rump roast for Frankie Giovanazzo, his young counterpart, to sprinkle with a mix of black pepper, dried garlic, and locatelli prior to rolling and tying with string (the brachiola is moist, flavorful, carrying echoes of the sharp, acidic cheese and spices when enjoyed later with a light marinara).
And then there’s the samples, the delicious slivers of roasted deli meat I’m handed while I get the rundown on the homemade meats that make it into the case.
First the roast beef: top round beef that’s given a two and-a-half hour slow roast. The spice blend and the juiciness of the meat comes through in a lunch meat I’ve never before thought nuanced. Next up is the porcetta, a bottom-of-the-New Year’s Day-pork roast-flashback worthy of Caligula; pork loin rolled in pork belly is given a near six-hour stint in the oven that turns it into near unctuous currency.
Finally, off to lunch I join the crew in a hanger like space adjacent the large prep kitchen. The old timers’ Italian mingles with Spanish, the mild back-talking I feel honored to eavesdrop.
One woman wisely sits close to the walk-in oven where hundreds of spuds bake in a slow, lazy 360 degree turn. The welcome tinge of grease from a perfectly breaded, moist chicken cutlet produces a synergy with the butter and mayo of my club sandwich, a crisp, toasted house of cards my jaws crash into like a greedy great white feeding upon a whale.
Being close to the same ovens where all that aforementioned “lunch meat” is slowly made sublime, I thought of an earlier remark; in a comment on quality that spoke volumes, deli counter assistant Mary Lucia said, “I can’t get ground meat or lunch meat anywhere else. I’m spoiled. I can’t [go back] because I know what goes into it.”
Hopefully, Mary, more people can see the light. We just need more places like Altomonte’s to show them, to shift the norm back in the other direction.