By JIM WILLIS
Just as in the Middle Ages, when last names like Baker, Taylor and Miller connoted the trade or profession of the family breadwinner, if “Citarella” were an occupation, it would now mean dude who knows meat.
In the late 1800s, Andrew Ralph Citarella left Naples, Italy, to settle in Red Bank, and soon began selling meat off of his front porch.
He learned to cut meat by just doing it, says Ralph Citarella, fourth-generation butcher and current owner of Citarella’s Market, on Prospect Avenue. Then he sent my great-grandmother [Carmela] to the meat houses [in Long Branch]. She learned the proper way, and then she taught him.
“So she taught my great-grandfather, and he taught my grandfather, and my grandfather taught my father, who taught me. Its like an apprenticeship. Its just years of a cutting apprenticeship.
From the front porch, the first Citarellas moved to a store on Bridge Avenue in Red Bank. Sometime later, the shop relocated to Sea Bright, where Ralphs grandfather and father, Andy, ran the business. The 1962 flood brought another relocation, to the Little Silver Shopping Center, where Andy ran the store. But in 1979, he had to get out of there, because at that time it was really run-down, and the rent was going up, so he moved the store” to its current location, said Ralph. “He moved a mile north, as he used to put it.
redbankgreen sat down with Ralph at a picnic table beside the store recently to talk about meat, sauce and what makes a 100- plus-year-old family business tick.
You started here in 1979 when your dad bought this building, right?
I was a senior [at Red Bank Regional]. The first thing they taught me was the deli. The only training I got was dont cut your finger on the slicer! [My family] would tell me these horror stories about how they all had cut their fingers on the slicer.
By the time I got the slicer down, then I started cutting meat. My father taught me most everything, but I couldnt get his [butchers] knot down; it was too complicated. But he had a guy who used to work for him named Bob Silver who was left-handed. He showed me, and it took me one time. Then I did some work in the kitchen because we got short-handed in there, and from there I learned everything.
And then you ended up running the place? When did you take over?
We lost my dad [in 2007] but hed been retired for a while already. A business partner had been helping [me] run the business for the past 15 or 16 years, and about two years ago [the partner] left, and we were in a deep financial hole that were just now getting out of. When he [suggested that we close the place down] I said, Look, that sign up there has my name on it. Im going to stay.
Now were basically caught up. Weve made some major changes and paid off all the debt during a recession. Thats not an easy thing to do. The first thing I did was start to clean the place up and put groceries back on the shelf. I always wanted to create an environment where people wanted to go if they like food. You know what I mean? If you like alcohol you go to a bar. You can drink at home, but you go to a bar and the bartenders going to mix you a drink you dont know how to make. I want to create an environment where people can go, Wow, this is a place where I can go because [I like food].
The current staff has been around longer than two years though, right?
Jeanne [Schaffer] and I have been together for 30 years. She came to work as a cashier in the 80s, and then my mom taught her how to cook. Which is really good, because shes a hell of a teacher to learn from. [Schaffer] learned from my mom and then went from cashier to kitchen. And then Kyle [Powell] came in as a sub boy that could do some heavier lifting. Kyles been here for about 13 years.
Any heirs to the Citarella throne?[Laughs] I dont plan on going anywhere for a while. We havent thought about that.
How have customers changed over the past 30 years?
Back in the day, [customers] were more loyal to their butchers. Today, people go where they like to go not thinking that if they dont support their local store, they may not be there. I tell people all the time, ‘support your local store, whether its me or someone else.’ I dont care who it is. If you have a small store that you like to go to, if you dont support it because youre looking somewhere else thats cheaper, when you go back and really need that place, they may not be there.
Well, thats the free market, right? I mean, whats wrong with just getting the cheapest price?
If you call and say, Ralph, can you get me this [special cut of meat]? we will go out of our minds trying to get it for you. Once the small stores are gone, people will only be able to get what corporate America wants them to have. Youll only be able to eat what they want you to eat, and only be able to buy what they want you to buy. Its the small stores not just meat stores, small stores period that make this a free country. You can go to any small store where you buy your clothes or your food and say, Can you get me this? and youre not facing corporate America saying, Sorry, we dont carry that. The small store is going to go out of their way to make it happen for you. And thats important, because thats the difference between being served as a customer and being just another guy pushing a cart around a store.
What’s your favorite inexpensive cut for a big family dinner?
Does it have to be beef?
No, whatever you think works. Pork, lamb. Your pick.
Pork loin roast. Thats the best: $3.99 a pound. So youre only spending $30 for a big one, and we put our apple stuffing in it. We tie it, and then you put it in the oven.
What if cost is no issue? What’s your favorite for a big dinner?
You cant beat a rib roast. Its not cheap. Prime [grade] prime rib is an experience most people have never had. They think theyve had it but at supermarkets. They call it prime rib, but its really Select [grade], and you cut into it and its like eating a regular beef roast. It doesnt have the marbeling, and itll eat like a pot roast. But you get Prime prime rib and its a totally different experience.
Besides meat, you sell some homemade items like sauce and mozzarella. What day do you make your mozzarella?
I make it every Saturday. If Ive got time during the week, Ill make it sometimes. I always make it for the holidays too. So Easter Im here at five in the morning to make it.
High-end tomato sauces in a jar are having a bit of a moment right now. There are some brands out there, like Raos, that people seem willing to pay through the nose for. How does your sauce compare?
Wow. First off, as a fourth-generation Italian, if I ate a sauce from a jar, my entire family would be spinning in their graves. Youre talking to a person whos never had a jarred sauce… I wont put my sauce in a jar. Italian people always save their Polly-O [cheese] containers and put their sauces in there and put them in the freezer. I dont know any Italians who eat jarred sauce.
How good could it be if youre making it in a factory? Sauce is something you do with love and passion, and every can of tomatoes is going to be different than the last. The tomatoes you start with are not going to be the same as the last time, and thats not something you can make up for with an exact recipe. You have to grow up eating it so you know what its supposed to taste like, so you can get what youre working with to taste that way.
OK, last question, whats more important: good shoes or good food?
Ha! Good shoes or good food? [Laughs incredulously] Its always better to have good food. Always.