Many of this city’s neighborhoods once filled with vibrant ethnic communities have all but disappeared, their roots erased as they become home to newer residents, and in turn, less specialty shops and cultural awareness. Look at Williamsburg and the Lower East Side for proof. And that’s what makes places like the East Village Meat Market (139 Second Avenue, 212-228-5590) so unique now; this taste of the old neighborhood has held strong against the gentrification tide, and it’s been serving the best of Eastern European meat products and goods for 44 years.
Opened in 1970 by Julian Baczynsky, the store boasts a dated red and blue sign out front and an un-remodeled interior. Store-length deli cases run the length of the shop to the left of the entrance, and numerous Ukrainian and Polish goods line the shelves to the right. The place contains none of the Greek-fraternal vibe now often found in the East Village.
You’ll often spy long-time customers. “Do you remember us? We come all the way from Astoria,” an elderly couple pushing a cart said to one of the many employees helping customers at the market. Quickly thereafter, Andrew Ilmicki, the longtime store manager, appeared to say hi to the hunched over couple, smiling and welcoming them back.
“The most important part of our business is the people,” he told me later. “If you don’t welcome them in, they maybe never come back.” A native of Poland, Ilmicki visited the States as a teenager, and in 1980, he found the shop, heard it was in need of a bag man, and has been working there ever since. Now overseeing daily operations while Mr. Baczynsky, 91, resides outside the city, it is Ilmicki who preserves the old space.
The East Village Meat Market makes just about everything in house, and it may be best known for its prized selections of hams. Three different types are cured in salt for around four days, and smoked for upwards of seven hours. Sold by the pound and whole, the hams are a highly desirable item come holiday time. “Good Friday has always been the busiest day of the year,” says Ilmicki, and you’ll often find a line snaking out the door.
If hams are not your business, the market also makes some of the finest sausages and kielbasa in the city. Butchered and stuffed in house with meat sourced exclusively from a small farm in Pennsylvania, the kielbasa are simultaneously smoked and baked using hickory wood in the back of the store, where employees drink coffee and read Polish newspapers. Regular patrons recommend you eat your links with the house made mustard, so strong it’s hard not to clear your nasal passages after every bite. That mustard is the best in the city, by the way, by leaps and bounds.
One of the finest specialty items at store, delivered Wednesday and Friday, is the dense and sour Lithuanian peasant bread, simply called the Lithuanian bread. Made without yeast, the bread is dark and slightly chewy, and when it’s in stock, you should ask the people behind the counter make you a ham sandwich on that bread with Swiss cheese and that nose-clearing mustard. The sour bread with the slightly sweet ham and strong mustard is a holy flavor triumvirate, and it can be yours for $5.
On Saturdays, the Market serves hot food, from blintzes to pirogies to stuffed cabbage to some of the most soulful soups found anywhere. Scratch made in the back almost daily, the soups range from classic beet borscht (which is light and fresh) to the most deeply savory chicken vegetable to mushroom barley. I have friends who keep a few pints in the freezer during the winter months to fight off any forthcoming colds, or just to enjoy on a cold-as-hell night. You might want to follow their lead.