Don’t ask how the sausage is made, the old saying goes, but at Tony’s Market in Roslindale, chances are you’ll like the answer.
Every Thursday and sometimes on Wednesdays, owner Antonio DeBenedictis can be found at the back counter, wielding a curved butcher knife to trim up to 300 pounds of pork butt.
Dressed in a spotless, white, button-down shirt and sweater vest under a black, meat-smeared apron, his hair a shock of white above dark, crescent-moon eyebrows, DeBenedictis places chunks of pork in a plastic tub, adds black pepper and salt measured out with a blue cup, and feeds the meat into a grinder at the front of the store.
Opera blares on the stereo while he works, and every time a customer comes through the door, he calls out a greeting in a gravelly, sing-songy Italian accent: “Buongiorno!”
Tony’s Market just celebrated its 50th year in business, 44 of them in Roslindale. It’s one of the oldest businesses in the neighborhood.
The butcher shop and Italian grocery has had its up and downs, serving as a kind of reverse barometer of the country’s fortunes: dipping in the late 1990s when the economy was blazing and everybody was going out to eat, soaring in the past five years after a recession took hold and more people started cooking at home.
In the meantime, a growing desire to know how our food is handled has helped fuel a revival of independent butcher shops, according to the national Butcher’s Guild.
‘The taker eats better, but the giver sleeps better.’
DeBenedictis, 74, didn’t know a thing about cutting meat when he got into the business. He learned as he went, sometimes from his mostly female customers — “I was young and cute, and honest” — who showed him how to trim roasts or slice thin cutlets.
He found that serving others suited him.
“There are two kinds of people: the giver and the taker,” he said, as “Tosca” soared and crashed in the background. “The taker eats better, but the giver sleeps better.”
DeBenedictis, the oldest boy in a family of nine children, grew up on a farm in Avellino, Italy, where his mother made cheese and his father made wine. When DeBenedictis was 19, the family moved to Boston. His dream was to be an opera conductor, but his family didn’t support it. “My father said to me, the musicians, they all die poor,” he said.
He found work sewing women’s clothing but quickly got bored, jumping at the chance in 1963 to buy a butcher shop in Dedham Square for $8,000.
DeBenedictis is happy where he landed, up to his elbows in raw meat for 12 hours a day, the knuckles in his right hand swollen and bent from working in the cold.
He reigns over the store from behind its counters, beneath large pictures of him and his wife, Deborah, in back, and posters of the 2006 Italian soccer team out front.
The shelves are lined with canned tomatoes, jars of marinated artichoke hearts, nests of delicate tagliatelle pasta, and vacuum-packed gnocchi. In the deli case, chunks of Parmigiano-Reggiano and tubes of pancetta sit above racks of ribs, chicken legs, and sausage links.
DeBenedictis mostly works alone, except on Saturdays, when his nephew helps, and mornings, when his wife comes in to do the books and sweep the floor.
Tony met Deborah, 58, while ballroom dancing seven years ago at Mosley’s on the Charles in Dedham, and she has played a key role in helping the market thrive.
She convinced him to participate in the local farmers market. She put up a website, bringing customers from outside the neighborhood, and spread the word to restaurants such as Dogwood Café, Pino’s Pizza, and Sophia’s Grotto, which started buying sausage and other meat from him.
With more women working outside the home, fewer of them cook time-consuming meals than they did when Tony’s first opened, meaning the shop sells fewer roasts. But many of the young professionals moving into the neighborhood are foodies, interested in the store’s Italian specialties, as well as in organic and natural fare. They want to know who is handling their meat as worries increase about growth hormones, antibiotics, and E. coli in the prewrapped meats at the supermarket.
Tony’s gets fresh meat from wholesalers in Boston and Woburn, the latter of which works with small farms in the Northeast. The majority of meat DeBenedictis sells is not local, however, and the butcher readily acknowledges he has no idea what the various certifications mean. He simply tells his customers, “If you pay more, means it must be a little bit better.”
But his wife knows, and she has convinced her husband to start carrying more hormone- and antibiotic-free meats. In the past four years, DeBenedictis said, business has doubled.
Karin Tuttle, a retired school psychologist from West Roxbury, is one of the regulars. “If we have barbecues in the summertime, it can’t be anything else but Tony’s sausages,” she said. “They will say, ‘Are they Tony’s sausages?’ And if they’re not, I think they’d go home.”
Treating his customers well is the most important thing, DeBenedictis said, smacking a chicken cutlet with a meat cleaver. If they come in at the right time, they might even get invited to have lunch with him.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary, DeBenedictis gave customers 20 percent off everything in the store for a week in November, including 153 Thanksgiving turkeys.
His wife put her head on her arm in mock distress. “He is generous to a fault,” she said.
But for DeBenedictis, it’s simple. He’s a giver, and he sleeps like a log.Katie Johnston can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.