In South Philly, a Master of Meat

Hanging out at one of the last true butcher shops.

By Alli Katz
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Nov. 9, 2010

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Photo by Gina Scanlon

Two little girls stand looking wide-eyed through the window at D’Angelo Bros. (909 S. 9th St). “There are rabbits!” says one. And there are—dead rabbits. The other peeks in through the doorway, holding her hands in front of her face. While the butcher shop is smaller than some of the others in the Italian Market, there’s no mistaking what’s inside—taxidermy lines the walls and the coolers are filled with delicious-looking charcuterie. It all seems to be fascinating to the little girls.

“We’re a tourist attraction, which is fine,” says Santo “Sonny” D’Angelo, the third-generation owner/butcher. “You never know who’s going to order something, and we ship around the country.” D’Angelo has worked in the shop since he was 13; it’s the only job he’s ever had. His grandfather, also Santo, opened up almost 101 years ago; his father, the second Santo and the first “Sonny,” expanded the business to sell nearly any meat a customer would want to buy, including raccoon and muskrat. Today, the law limits sales to what’s commercially available, but motivated Philly cooks can still get kangaroo, rattlesnake, eland, alligator and any number of other uncommon game meats.

D’Angelo, who in his free time grows orchids, describes himself as “gruff,” which makes some of his regulars laugh. He credits it to his concern for selling the best meat he can. “I care almost too much,” he says. “If I go home and a pork chop is a little tougher than it should be, it upsets me.”

There’s the rabbit, never-frozen and bred to D’Angelo’s specifications: a hybrid of New Zealand Whites and New Zealand Giant. There’s homemade salami, boar and duck prosciutto, lardo and double-smoked, low-nitrate bacon. And then there are sausages—more than 300 varieties including boar, venison and duck, all made by D’Angelo from his own recipes.

D’Angelo has exacting standards. A couple of rabbits sit in a butcher tray in the cooler. “Those are dog food,” he says. “I don’t like to waste. They aren’t good enough for people to eat, but it’s a healthy alternative to commercial brands.”

“I came here for the boar sausage,” says Frank Anastasi, visiting from Washington, D.C. “My son introduced me to it. I stop here, Di Bruno Brothers and Sarcone’s bakery when I come to town.”

The shop is popular—gawkers frequently see the window displays and wander. Then there are the die-hard regulars. Some come a couple times a week, others once a month, and some, like Anastasi, whenever they’re in Philly.

One of the little girls watches in awe as D’Angelo prepares a rabbit for Debbie, in from New Jersey. “Ew, that’s gross!” shouts the girl. Amy, her mother, laughs. “If you’re going to eat meat, you need to know where it comes from,” she tells her daughter.

Debbie has found the shop on the recommendation of another store owner in the Market. “I grew up eating all organically, growing rabbits myself. To find it these days is hard.” She drives to the Italian Market to buy food and produce to ship to her children in the south, where she says they can’t get the same quality products. “It’s hard to find an old-world butcher anymore.”

D’Angelo agrees. “Butchers are very scarce. Meat cutters you can find anywhere.”

This comes at a time where even more people are interested in old-school butchers not just for their exotic specialty meats, but for the local and organic. Many of D’Angelo’s customers are younger people, entranced by shows on the Food Network, who want to explore gourmet cooking.

“We were organic back in the 1960s,” says D’Angelo, when his family had its own farm. “Partially because we didn’t know any better. We didn’t know about chemicals, fertilizers or bug sprays.” Now, D’Angelo has close relationships with farmers in Lancaster; he drives out to pick up free-range chickens personally. He gets his boar from a population-control program in Texas, and goes to the airport every morning to pick up more exotic meat from New Zealand and Europe.

D’Angelo’s turkeys are his current pride—he bought a crop of Bourbon Red Heirloom chicks and had them raised by a local farmer under his specific instructions. There are already more than a hundred orders for Thanksgiving, and regulars come in every day to put their names on the list.

D’Angelo loves what he does. “I used to cry about how I couldn’t go out and hang on corners or play football because I was stuck inside making sausages,” he says. “But now I have a trade, and they’re still hanging on corners.”

And about that gruff exterior? “If you want a smile, go to Starbucks,” he says. “If you want good meat, come here.”

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