In this series for T, the author Reggie Nadelson revisits New York institutions that have defined cool for decades, from time-honored restaurants to unsung dives.
This spring in the East Village, blue and yellow flags flutter in the breeze. The sign of support for Ukraine also hangs in the window, alongside loops of kielbasa and loaves of dark Lithuanian rye bread, at the East Village Meat Market, a butcher shop and grocery at 139 Second Avenue. The founder’s name, J. Baczynsky, the “J.” short for Julian, remains emblazoned on the facade. A Ukrainian immigrant, he opened the store in 1970 and, in the half-century since, it’s become an anchor of the neighborhood — and, since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, a rallying point for sympathetic New Yorkers of all backgrounds.
At the center of the shop stands its current owner, Andrew Ilnicki, who presides over a group of mostly Ukrainian-speaking butchers and staff. As we chat, shoppers stream by: a young guy in an emerald green bike helmet buys an enormous horseradish that could double as a weapon; an older Ukrainian man comes in looking for stuffed cabbage, one of the shop’s housemade prepared dishes; and a woman in black skinny jeans dashes in while her car idles at the curb to inquire if there will be fresh cheese babka the next morning for her to serve at a brunch. There will be.
The East Village has long been home to immigrants from Eastern Europe, and many of the dishes New Yorkers like me think of as Jewish fare — borscht, potato pancakes, stuffed cabbage — are, of course, just as much Ukrainian or Polish. Customers stop in for those comforts of home, or at least of their grandmother’s home, and for steak and chops, brisket and short ribs or the jellied pigs’ feet, Hungarian salami and pierogi stored in glass-front display cases and along the shelves of the narrow space. Toward the back, a fridge holds hams, cheeses and herring.
“We get our kielbasa and ham from Meat Market,” says Jason Birchard, the third-generation owner of Veselka, the Ukrainian restaurant across Second Avenue. “It’s the best there is, at a reasonable price.”
“What I love about the Meat Market is that it’s a small-town shop in a big, big city. The food is delicious and the butchers remember you,” says Sally Roy, a film and television producer who lived in the East Village for decades. “In what seems like an anonymous city, they treat you like a friend.” Roy lives upstate now, but never returns to the area without picking up a city ham, a Meat Market special with very little fat.
Personally, I love the country ham, a different cut of pork. “The whole process is natural. We use a minimum of salt, and the smoking and baking is done with natural wood,” says Ilnicki of the store’s meat offerings. He spends many of his early mornings helping prepare the kielbasa before hanging it in the shop’s 50-year-old smokers. It’s made with pork and a small amount of beef. Anything else? Ilnicki smiles, offering only “secret spices.”
An elegant fellow with intense blue eyes, Ilnicki has spent his whole adult life at the shop. It’s a story he loves telling: He arrived in New York in 1980, at age 17, from the city of Jelenia Góra in southwestern Poland. An aunt had invited him and one of his brothers to come live with her in the United States, on St. Marks Place. “I had no English,” he says, but there was word of a job opening at the Meat Market. “I wanted to be a butcher, though I had no idea how to do it,” he recalls. Baczynsky brought him in anyway, and within a year had shown him everything he needed to know.
He and “the boss,” as Ilnicki still calls him, grew close, like father and son. Ilnicki chuckles as he recounts memories of how Baczynsky led a rich life, eating at the city’s great French restaurants and buying suits from Bijan, the fabulous Iranian designer. Ilnicki stayed on at the shop as he studied accounting and finance at N.Y.U. “In those early days, I just kept going,” Ilnicki says. He married his “200 percent Ukrainian” wife, as he describes her, Olha, and they raised their two children on East Seventh Street, the same block as St. George Ukrainian Catholic Church, where they are active members.
In the late ’80s, Baczynsky had a medical scare and his wife urged him to retire, so he began the process of turning the shop over to Ilnicki and another colleague, Antoni Tychanski. Last year, Tychanski himself retired, and Baczynsky died at the age of 98. Ilnicki remains, his passion for the community clear to anyone who passes through.
On the counter toward the entrance of the Meat Market is a jar stuffed with bills — contributions to the humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. “Before the invasion, nobody much talked about Ukraine,” Ilnicki says. “But now it’s everything. People hand me cash and checks, saying, ‘You’ll know what to do with this.’” Indeed, he follows the situation closely. “We read all the papers and watch the news, of course, but everyone here who has relatives in Ukraine, including my wife, is always on the phone trying to get more information.”
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“Andrew has been critical in our efforts for Ukraine, especially in working with St. George church, getting much needed supplies to Ukraine,” says Birchard. “Canned foods, medical supplies, sleeping bags. He’s a great friend.”
When Ilnicki and I settle in for some grilled kielbasa with horseradish at Veselka, he spots Birchard and calls out to him. The two men have worked at their respective spots on Second Avenue since they were teenagers. “We even have very distant cousins in common in Ukraine,” Birchard tells me later over the phone. “He’s very caring. He had tutelage from Mr. Baczynsky, who was a father figure to the whole neighborhood, and he’s carrying his mantle. He learned from the best.”
Later in the week, I run into Tobi Rauscher, a German friend who lives on St. Marks Place and works for Google. “I went into Meat Market not long ago because I saw their sweets and baked goods on display in the window. I got what in my region are called krapfen and in other places are Berliner — what you call jelly doughnuts,” he says of the treats of his native Bavaria, which the staff at Meat Market refer to by a Ukrainian term, pampushky. He also got a pumpernickel loaf. “They were delicious,” he says. “They reminded me of home.”
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