There’s an old anecdote about Smoky Burgess, the 1950s catcher — if you woke him up in the middle of the night and asked him to pinch-hit, he would send the first ball he saw into the outfield for a single. And watching Mario Zollo breaking down a pork butt, five-foot-five with gray chest hair cascading through his open button-down shirt, you can understand that this man could, most likely, break down an entire steer at four o’clock in the morning.
On a recent afternoon, Zollo was leaning against the building that is his home and butcher shop, watching the traffic whiz by on busy Metropolitan Avenue. Mario and Sons (662 Metropolitan Avenue; 718-486-9317) had a location on Cooper Avenue in Queens for twenty years, but it’s been in this spot for the past fifteen, serving a still-vibrant Italian community fresh meat, homemade soppressata, and fresh sausages (hot or sweet).
Zollo, now 73, celebrated his 53rd year as a U.S. resident just a few days before talking to the Voice. Born in Fontanarosa, a town near Naples in southern Italy, he remembers that while growing up, his father would butcher his own meat and walk through the town with the dead carcass draped over his shoulder. When Zollo was twenty, the family relocated to Williamsburg, then a predominantly Italian neighborhood; they flew from Naples to Milan and on to New York, eventually buying the house Mario and Sons now occupies. Today, Zollo gets offers almost daily from eager property managers looking to purchase the three-story building.
Zollo’s accent still sounds very fresh off the boat; he cuts between Italian and English when talking with his co-worker and sister, Lena. The store, with a long meat case on the left and shelves of Italian products on the right, is no-frills and homey. There’s a collection of plastic pigs, and a cast photo from The Godfather hangs near a plaque from Our Lady of Mount Carmel church, home of the annual Brooklyn feast, where Zollo is a proud and active member. Often, you can find him or one of his many friends relaxing in plastic lounge chairs next to the television, which was recently tuned 24/7 to the papal visit.
“The pope, he has only nice things in him,” Zollo says, his hands in a prayer position. “I watch every step he take on the television, and when he leave on the plane, he get me.”
When asked what makes a good butcher, Zollo replies easily, “A good butcher is someone who knows, it must be inside, you are born with it.” And after all his years of cutting meat, from lamb to veal to duck and chicken, Zollo is able to make visitors instantly comfortable with his calm, I’ve-seen-it-before demeanor, just as he is with a customer who’s unsure about which cut would be best for stuffed pork chops. “You want it filleted, I know. I got you.”
Having worked seven days a week for the past decade or so, Zollo casually mentions that he’d like to lease out his shop to a younger butcher, someone who would care for it. “A time comes when is enough,” he says.