November 14, 2010

The West Village's real meat market: Florence Prime

One of my favorite West Village rituals is to drop in on Florence Prime Meat Market (5 Jones Street) on a weekday afternoon. Free of weekend lineups, the crew, fronted by the efficient Maria Alava at the register, is cheerful and relaxed, its mood enhanced by the soothing classical music that always fills the store.

It’s the kind of place with sawdust on the floor, framed charts of beef cuts on the walls, handsaws hanging from hooks. The wooden butcher blocks have been worn concave with use, and the scales and meat case date back to the FDR administration. Many of Florence’s employees have been there as long as owner Benny Pizzuco, since 1995. “Once in a while one or two of the delivery boys change, but they all start out with a broom,” says Benny. “We we don’t start with butchers; they come with bad habits. They have to be taught our way.”

Although Benny worked as a butcher on Long Island before coming to Florence, he still studied the Florence way as an employee for several years before buying the shop in 1995 from previous owner Tony Pellegrino. Tony took over in 1975, but the shop has been around since 1936, when a butcher named Jack Ubaldi first opened its doors.

“We’re one of the last actual prime custom shops in the city,” says Benny. “Walk into other places and everything is cut already.” Pizzuco says he has one or two customers who have been coming to the store since it opened (or their parents did), though most are gone. A number of long-time customers have moved to the suburbs, but still make the drive in on Saturdays to pick up their weekly order.

Pizzuco takes pride in his beef, dry aged for up to three weeks and hand cut to order, handmade sausages, and his seasoned veal roasts, offered two ways: one with prosciutto, pepper, rosemary and garlic, and the other with spinach, sausage and herbs. “The seasoning goes where it belongs, on the inside,” he says.

This Thanksgiving , as every year, Florence is taking pre-orders for natural fresh turkeys, fresh duck, squab and quail, which Benny gets from a farmer in Pennsylvania with whom he’s had a longstanding relationship. On my last visit, one regular wanted to make sure that her turkey would be a wild one. They’re a little tougher, and a little gamier, an acquired taste that is a badge of honor among those who possess it.

Certain info is proprietary at Florence, such as the name of Benny’s turkey supplier, and how exactly he cuts his Newport steaks. The Newport, said to have been invented at Florence, is still one of its top sellers. It is a type of tri-tip, normally a grainy, triangular-shaped muscle from the bottom sirloin of the cow, but somehow rendered much more appetizing by the butchers at Florence.

“When Jack opened the place, it was very bohemian around here,” Benny explains. “People were really starving artists. He came up with this fairly reasonable cut.” (Still reasonable, it sells for $7.99 a pound at Florence.) The name came from the package of Newport cigarettes, which featured a half moon logo. “Back then it was fashionable, though today it might bother people.”

Don’t even get Benny started on the vagaries of outer-borough food stores and cheap meat. “To be honest witcha (one of Benny’s favorite sentence starters) all of those businesses, the meat market, the food store, the fish store, once you leave Manhattan, they’re gone; not enough people are interested in food to support a place like this. The stuff at Costco is horrible, untrimmed, in a bloody plastic bag. Why would you want to spend six-ninety-nine a pound for a steak when you eat only fifty percent of it?” he asks.

Anyway, back to the secret of that tender Newport. Benny will reveal that it is only partly tri-tip, and so more prime and tender. But he prefers not to divulge this “seventy-something-year-old secret.”

That’s okay with me. I’m happy that Benny has such secrets, and that Florence is still here to maintain them.

Florence Prime Meat Market
5 Jones Street, between 6th and 7th Avenues
New York, NY 10014
(212) 242-6531