Prime Time

As my friend Carly says, “If we weren’t meant to eat animals, how come they’re all made of meat?” And there’s no better time to be at the top of the food chain than summer-barbecue season. But all meat is not created equal: Only about 3 percent of American beef is graded prime, and only a small subset of that undergoes dry-aging—the slow, costly process of hanging meat in a refrigerated locker for weeks, which enhances tenderness while concentrating flavor. (The increasingly common wet-aging, in which meat is Cryovac-sealed instead of hung, is good for texture but does nothing for taste.) Even less of this crème de la boeuf is available after the top steakhouses take their share.

Fortunately, a few local butcher shops still sell dry-aged prime. My favorite is Major Prime Meat Market, in Coney Island (1516 Mermaid Avenue; 718-372-8091), where Jimmy Prince has been holding forth since 1949. Jimmy’s a throwback: He sprinkles sawdust on the floor, plays big-band tunes on the radio, wears a necktie under his apron and his heart on his sleeve.

More important, his meat is top-notch. You know how you’re always hearing that Peter Luger selects only the best porterhouses? Jimmy gets the other cuts from many of those same carcasses. Not that you’d guess that from walking into his place, which is stocked primarily with produce and canned goods—no meat in sight. It’s all aging in Jimmy’s locker, usually for two or three weeks. Ask for a sirloin or a rib eye, and he hauls out a huge primal cut and slices it to your liking. Soon you’re home enjoying the addictive mineral tang of dry-aged prime, Glenn Miller still echoing in your ears.

But maybe you don’t want to schlep all the way to Coney. So head to the Florence Prime Meat Market (5 Jones Street; 212-242-6531), in Greenwich Village. “One reason our meat’s so good is that we have long relationships with some of the same wholesalers the original owner dealt with 60 years ago,” says current owner Benny Pizzuco, who’s like central casting’s idea of a butcher: big, affable, and endearingly brusque. (“I don’t know if you wanna print this,” he says, “but the way to tell a good lamb is to look for a nice ass.”)

Like Jimmy Prince, Benny keeps his meat out of sight in a locker—it ages for up to three weeks—and slices it while you watch. “We cut everything by hand, never with a band saw,” Pizzuco explains. “That way, the fat marbling doesn’t streak—you get a better bloom.” He demonstrates by cutting me a prime rib steak, which cooks up tender and rich, the exquisite marbling accenting the sharp, beefy taste.

The meat is aged even longer—four to six weeks—at Lobel’s Prime Meats, on the Upper East Side (1096 Madison Avenue, near 82nd Street; 212-737-1372), which imparts a complex nuttiness rarely encountered in today’s beef. “Back in the day, this kind of aging wasn’t so uncommon,” Evan Lobel says as he slices me a boneless strip steak. “But with dry-aging, you lose 15 to 20 percent of the meat’s weight—that’s why it’s expensive. With Cryovac, there’s no waste. But we think the flavor of dry-aging is worth it.” Me too. That’s why I’ll be back at these shops when summer barbecues give way to winter roasts and stews.

Prime Time