On a recent sunny afternoon, Benny Pizzuco was standing outside his butcher shop in Greenwich Village. Benny, tan and standing around six-three, with white chest hair protruding through his blue button-down shirt, was greeting almost everyone who walked by in his Long Island accent, shaking hands with his Pringles-can forearms.
“When I first started, if you went into the cutting room [of a meatpacking-district butcher house] and gave the guy breaking down the hinds $5, he would give you a whole box of skirt steaks, because no one knew what to do with them,” says Benny. “Now they’re like $11 a pound for the prime.”
Opened on March 6, 1936, by Italian immigrant Jack Ubaldi, Florence Meat Market (5 Jones Street #1, 212-242-6531) has been serving the greater Village community in the same postage-stamp-size location for almost 80 years. Ubaldi sold the store to his longtime employee Tony Pellegrino in the mid-1970s; Tony then sold it to Benny in 1995. Before taking over the store, Benny ran his own butcher shop, Buckley Meats in Long Island. After meeting Tony at the meat market one day, “we started talking, and, you know, he said he didn’t want to sell it to just anybody and come back four months later and have it be closed,” recalls Benny.
Walking through the green wooden door into Florence is much like walking into the store when it first opened. The white scales are antique, along with the two small wooden benches that customers sit on while waiting for their meat and poultry, always freshly cut to order. Sawdust is scattered on the floor and the butchers, wearing white jackets with pencils behind their ears, chop and package the cuts on the original chopping blocks. A small white deli case — just to the right of a poster of the Mona Lisa — has a few odds and ends in it, like hot dogs and some freshly rolled sausages.
The other good stuff is kept in the walk-in meat locker a few feet away. It’s cold inside the store (it’s a butcher shop, after all), and a mix of classical and opera is always playing at the perfect volume.
“We don’t hire butchers,” says Benny. “Everyone starts from the bottom and learns our way.” Florence specializes in prime, dry-aged beef. That beef, which is cornfed, comes from Aurora, Illinois. Most of it is aged between 25 and 30 days. “It blooms the flavor,” explains Benny. “It’s just like wine; you want young wine, or wine with a little age?”
Florence is known for its Newport steak, invented by Ubaldi and named after the similar C-shaped logo of Newport cigarettes. Although many people opine about the exact cut, most believe it to be a sirloin from the bottom butt. Along with steak, Florence stocks fresh chicken (always deboned to order), fresh veal (which Jackie Kennedy Onassis would send her driver to pick up), and, on request, fresh game like squab and wild turkey. The fresh lamb is always in high demand; former mayor Ed Koch would often come in to pick up lamb chops, says Benny, and “always complain about the prices.”
Along with the retail business, for which three delivery bikes are always on the move around town, Florence has a large wholesale enterprise, supplying over 250 restaurants from Manhattan to East Hampton.
On the same street where Dylan and Suze Rotolo linked arms on the cover of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, and the exact location where Robert De Niro filmed his first commercial, Florence still exists under a slightly tattered green awning, proudly carrying on tradition. “Customers get mad at us if we move a picture,” says Benny.