Will Prunty, executive chef at Prime Meats, races vigorously through what feels like a maze of kitchens connecting Prime Meats to Frankies Spuntino to the butcher shop. As I follow him through his routine, we go upstairs for vegetables, across a garden to a slightly subterranean bakery, back upstairs to the meat room and finally to the expansive barn-like kitchen where prep for nearly everything they do (and they do a lot) begins.
One almost expects to find a secret underground tunnel network beneath the nouveau nostalgic empire that Frank Castronovo and Frank Falcinelli have crafted in the heart of Carroll Gardens (lined, I imagine, with cured meats, prohibition ales and some busted brass instruments). What started at Frankies' with a fastidious approach to Italian cooking-an emphasis on Old World craft and local sourcing—has now come to encompass coffee (with Café Pedlar), Germanic fare (Prime Meats) and publishing (the Frankies just released a gold embossed cookbook written with Pete Meehan). They've even pushed into Manhattan: Frankies has an outpost on Clinton St. and another is planned for the old Café Hudson space. The food can even be found at the Meadowlands sports arena—every Sunday, the bakery churns out 800-900 pretzels for the Jets and Giants games.
Chef Will drops me off with Travis Evans, whose been at work since 2 am (as he is most mornings) to bake the cookies, the bread, and the beloved Bavarian pretzels. Initially, Castronovo's father-in-law flew in from the Black Forest region of Germany to teach the staff traditional pretzel-making. Lye gives the snack a golden brown crust, and the dough is formed with almost Calder-esque twisting and flipping to make it—crunchy at the thin, intertwined closure and chewy at its thickest point.
The pretzel dumplings came about as a way to use left-over pretzels, and naturally took on a life of their own. Chef Jason sets me up with a prep station, a knife, a scale and quart containers of all the ingredients. I'm left alone to chop and weigh and feel the pressure of the frenetic kitchen around me.
Falcinelli walks in, clad in plaid wool hat, eyeing me with his steely blue gaze, which cuts like a band saw, at least to someone half-dressed like a chef who has no business pretending to be one. At first he playfully harasses me for being slow (which is true), then tells me I'm ready for the line (which isn't). Once all the ingredients are weighed and chopped, we sweat the onions in salt and butter, add parsley and thyme, heat up milk and mix it all together with the sliced day-old pretzels. Then we roll the mixture into a log, incased in Saran Wrap, which is then poached for 45 minutes in simmering water. After the log sets, it's sliced into medallions and pan-fried in butter. The result is like a stuffing latke-a perfect remedy for the onslaught of winter.
Next, Will takes me up to the meat room to watch the process of slicing tartare by hand.
The medallions are sliced so that each bite of tartare is like a tiny pearl. All the meat comes from one of two purveyors, DeBragga (ribeyes and strip) and Pat LaFrieda (the hamburger meat). Buying local has its downsides—last week Will's Amish suppliers informed him that due to a wolf attack on the henhouse, he wouldn't be getting his usual order. He had to scramble for eggs.
We take the balls of tartare ready-beef downstairs to Chef David, who mixes in shallots, anchovies, horseradish shavings, salt, pepper, chives, Tabasco, capers, dill, lemon oil, and Worcestershire sauce—and of course, some Frankies olive oil imported from Sicily and available in the butcher shop around the corner.
The dish is served with Bianca bread, daikon sprouts and toasted pumpkin seeds, and topped with a quail egg yolk. The pizza bread perfectly compliments the flavor of the tartare; each bite reveals a different, subtle layer of flavor, and the meat is so tender it melts.
Chef Will is particularly proud of his burger, which is simple and pure, exactly what a burger should be. For now, that recipe is top secret-not even the Franks know the exact formula. Last October when the Jets got killed by the Packers, Chef Will was in Woody Johnson's box serving 150 people or so the braten with pretzels. A die-hard Jets fan who grew up in Bay Ridge, it was a rare thrill (despite the score). "My father would be rolling in his grave if he knew I was in Woody Johnson's box," he says.
Not surprisingly, Prime Meats Thanksgiving already has a wait list 60 deep, but you can still order a meal to go or an uncooked bird fresh from the farm.