The sound of live guitars, harmonicas and crooning voices drift from the closed door of Conte’s Market in Yorkville around 10 a.m., bringing back memories of yore for Upper East Side old-timers and a stream of steady business in this small butcher shop.
Owner Nick Conte pretends he doesn’t like the crowd in his shop.
“They” means the group of longtime Upper East Side residents who have been coming to Conte’s for years. In recent years, a new tradition has brought the old-timers in to sing.
Every Friday morning from 10 a.m. to noon, Conte’s Market, a small butcher shop and grocery on 89th Street at York Avenue, is dominated by an ensemble of guitars, harmonicas, a mandolin and a ring of people surrounding this set-up singing along to old Italian and American folk songs.
Headed by Dominic Chianese, who played Uncle Junior on The Sopranos, the idea for this Friday morning jam session came two years ago in February, when mid-conversation with Conte, Chianese ran home to get his guitar and started playing songs right in the shop in his native Italian.
Now there is a whole band of musicians cramped around a card table with a red tablecloth. Around them are residents singing along, slowly clapping and swaying to the music with their eyes closed or their hands folded against their chests.
Around 12:30, the crowd slowly shuffles out, Parvezur Rahman and Mamum Hossain, longtime employees of Conte’s, say farewell to all of them by name.
“It is a very good, friendly neighborhood,” said Rahman. “I know all these customers because they come in every Friday and during the week. It gets hard to do business Friday morning [with the crowd] but they’re not gonna go away until we say no, and we’re not gonna say no because they’re nice people.”
Once the crowd empties out, it is business as usual for the boys at Conte’s. The smell of cooked meats is almost unbearable as it wafts from the kitchen. Conte walks through with a giant slab of beef in his hands, which he gives to the guys behind the counter. One of the guys cuts a piece off the block of beef and hands it to a waiting costumer.
“I’ll take a corned beef sandwich,” she said immediately after tasting it.
Jim Sullivan, a longtime friend of Conte’s, raves about the meats here at Conte’s. “He is the best butcher in the Upper East Side, bar none.”
A Bronx native, Conte acquired the shop from its previous owners in 1986 after having worked there for nine years. He has run it since then but is thinking about retirement. Once he does, he will hand over the store to Hossain and Rahman. But he will never be too far from the shop—he lives right next door.
“I’ve got everything I need here,” he said. “Got my car, highway’s right there, I can be on my way and go golfing every weekend.”
A father comes in with his children. Conte greets him and the kids like old friends. While the children get their snacks, Conte hands the father a golfing club and ball, pulls back a round piece of flooring by the back kitchen, and waits as the father takes his shot. He gets it on the third time to applause and shouts throughout the store.
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