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The Vaccari family has spent nearly one-hundred years and three generations dealing with World Wars, depressions, recessions, 9/11 — so that’s maybe why they’ve seen an opportunity during the pandemic to take their fine meat business back full circle.
Piccinini Bros, on 9th Avenue between W44/45th Street, had to act quickly when their 200 plus restaurant customers closed in mid-March and their business disappeared overnight. “Once Danny Meyer closed his group, they all closed,” said Paul Vaccari, the third-generation owner of the Hell’s Kitchen meat store. “We furloughed almost everybody on March 17th not knowing our future and we closed the shop for a day. My wife, Sylvie, and I talked about it and we decided that we would open as a retail store. By coincidence, a friend of Sylvie’s had just been furloughed and volunteered to do our website. So within days, we had a website and we planned on selling first to friends and then through word of mouth just to keep ourselves going.”
As the website took off at the end of March, they took a call from Eater New York. They were doing a round-up of Michelin-starred restaurant suppliers who had turned to retail. What seemed like a big break, was a minor disaster. “At that time, we were fulfilling 25 to 50 orders per day with the help of one butcher and one delivery driver,” said Paul. “We were featured on Apri 1 in Eater, and we got a thousand orders in 48 hours. It was not a break. We had no staff. Literally, no one wanted to come to work at that point in the pandemic.” They survived and business has settled to a level they can cope with as staff returned to work and the lockdown eased.
The original business was founded in 1922 by Guido Vaccari, who learned his trade courtesy of the U.S. government as a butcher during World War I. As the roaring twenties was revving up, he started the business with his elder half brother Mauro Piccinini at 647 Ninth Avenue, just one block north of its current location. The new store boasted one of the city’s first walk-in freezers and during the 20th century entertained a colorful mix of clients from housewives, speakeasies, restaurants, and meat-loving actors like Walter Matthau and Jimmy Durante.
Guido’s son Rudy helped in the shop from the age of 14, learning the business after school and on weekends sweeping sawdust, running errands, and eventually apprenticing behind the counter. After completing a navy stint in 1946, he returned to Hell’s Kitchen and took over the business in 1960 when Mauro died. These days, Rudy’s son, Paul, and his wife, Sylvie, are in charge.
As the lockdown eased, they opened up for walk-in customers driven by local demand, and their wish to go back to their roots of a neighborhood family business. “We now have a showcase of products. People come in and ask for restaurant type items that they can’t find anywhere and we can give that to them,” enthused Paul. “The overall response has been that the quality of our product is excellent and the prices are very fair. The word of mouth has been very strong.”
As the local business has built, they’ve started to open on Saturday. With the store opening, has also come a lot of reminiscing from clients who were regulars at the shop 30 years ago. “They say ‘we used to buy from your dad’ and ‘I’m glad you’re open again’,” said Paul proudly. “I can end up chatting for 25 minutes to some who can remember the hat my grandfather used to wear with a pheasant feather in it.”
Their bolognese mix — which is a third veal, pork and beef — is a”huge, huge seller” for locals making pasta sauce, meatballs and meatloaf. They are renowned for their variety of steaks including Sylvie’s favorite, ribeye, and aged steaks (which they supply to restaurants like Union Square, Daniel Boulud, and Dan Barber’s Blue Hill). “During the pandemic, people are cooking and they’re trying new things,” said Sylvie. “So they’ve become more adventurous about what they’re eating and what they’re asking for. We have things like venison, wild boar, and guinea hen. Many customers used to eat at the restaurants that we serve and they’re so thrilled that they get the same quality, without the tips.”
Paul and Sylvie are delighted that their business is now balanced between a reviving wholesale market, website sales, and the retail shop on Ninth Avenue. “It’s become part of what we are. It’s brought us full circle to what my dad and grandfather had,” said Paul. “We were talking about bringing it back and this just fast-tracked it a little bit.”
Piccinini Bros is at 633 9th Avenue between W44/45th Streets. They are now open Monday-Saturday. Check their website for updated opening hours and delivery. www.piccininibros.com