Frank Ottomanelli makes a point of knowing his customers. If not by name, at least by meat.




And so when "Lamb Chop Lady" or "T-bone Mike" walk in to his old-style New York butcher shop, Ottomanelli is able to give them the sort of personalized service that can mean the difference between a divine dinner and a deep disappointment.




"A lot of customers come in with cookbooks, and we'll look at it for them," says Ottomanelli, a third-generation butcher who runs Ottomanelli Sons with his three brothers. "I get more hugs from my customers than I get from my wife all year."




But in this era of superstores and online ordering, most people know their convenience store clerk better than their butcher.




That's a shame because relationships with people like Ottomanelli can get you more than a nickname: Custom cuts, the inside scoop on the day's best offerings, or cooking tips on how to make the most of your meat.




For that to happen, it helps to speak your butcher's language.




"Any time someone walks in and knows what they're talking about, it makes it a whole lot more interesting," says Trent Plumley, a butcher and assistant manager at Todd's Butcher Shop in Nashville, Tenn.




Even if you know nothing about cuts, at least know what you are serving and how you want to cook it, he says.




The biggest mistake people make at the meat counter is fending for themselves without asking any questions or doing any homework, says Tom Schneller, a meat instructor at The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.




Even looking up a recipe on the Internet can make it easier to know what to ask for and how to ask for it, he says.




Tom Wright, a butcher for 37 years at a Louisville, Ky., Kroger store, says he likes it when customers come in with recipes and ask for help. He's also happy to prepare special cuts if people call ahead.




And if you ask, he'll also share his tricks for foolproof grilling (go with the rib-eye) and how to make the most out of inexpensive chuck steaks (marinades).




"You've got to be right. If you're right, they'll come back to you. They'll say it turned out good," he says.




So here are some basics that will help you make your relationship with your butcher a meaningful one.




"" Most grocers stock "choice" cuts, the most popular grade. "Select," the lowest retail grade, is what Schneller calls the "you-better-marinate-'em" grade; it's lean and tough. Higher-end butchers stock the much better "prime" grade.




"" When it comes to steaks, a hefty price often means a foolproof cut. T-bone, porterhouse, top loin, sirloin and tenderloin steaks are tender enough to call for little more than some salt and pepper and a quick turn on the grill.




"" If you want a steak on the cheap, consider tougher cuts such as skirt or flank. Just be sure to marinate them first.




"" When looking for ribs, such as baby back, barbecue expert Steven Raichlen says to be sure to ask the butcher for a rectangular rack that's not very curved. This helps it sit flatter on the grill and cook evenly. Aim for a rack that's about 21/2 pounds (with bone) of well-marbled meat.




"" For lamb chops, which are easily and quickly grilled, the best (and priciest) bets are rib and loin chops, says Aliza Green, author of "Field Guide to Meat." Also ask the butcher for sirloin or leg chops, which are leaner and not quite as tender, but are good if not overcooked.




"" If burgers are on the menu, ask the butcher to grind your beef for you that day. And for the best taste, stick with beef that is 20 percent fat; anything less will produce dry burgers.