Jonathan Gold Reviews Mozza's Whole Hog Dinners
Were we talking about pop-ups, just the two of us? Because if you've been paying attention to this space, the subject has come up quite a bit lately: pop-ups within bakeries; pop-ups within breakfast joints; pop-ups in pizza parlors, supermarkets, even in the very restaurant owned by the chefs doing the popping-up. I'd like to pop up in this space as the writer I was here in the 1980s, writing about performance art, baroque opera and movies starring guys named Corey, but then neither of us would figure out where to have dinner a week from Saturday.
We do talk about other things here, of course, not all of them having to do with Korean innard preparations. There are Nu-Asian restaurants, locavore restaurants, nose-to-tail restaurants, gastropubs and trucks, as well as the commingling that happens when you take one from column A and one from column B, so that you get locavore trucks, or nose-to-tail gastropubs, or molecular Nu-Asian pop-ups.
Whole Hog Dinners, held most Saturday nights at the Scuola di Pizza in the Mozza complex, fall somewhere on that continuum. It is a restaurant within a restaurant, it takes place one night a week, and you sit next to strangers at a vast communal table, just as you would at an underground restaurant like Wolvesmouth. It is under the supervision of one chef, Chad Colby, who runs pizza classes and hog-butchering seminars in this room when he's not doing these dinners (or the tomato or fish dinners currently running on Thursdays and Fridays, respectively), and who commands some but not all of the resources of the Mozza empire. You can't, for example, get an espresso after dinner, although espresso is served freely elsewhere in the complex.
You serve yourself from big communal platters, as you do at the Basque boardinghouse restaurants, so you become acutely aware of those rare moments when there are four people yet to be served and only three pancetta-wrapped breadsticks left on the plate, and you learn to be careful maneuvering saucy dishes around corners.
Most of all, the Whole Hog Dinners involve a whole hog each week, from the feet stewed with butter beans to the fatback used to glaze the gingerbread pigs for dessert, so you get to know that one pig rather well — an organic, sustainably raised Heritage pig, a different breed every week. (I'm not sure if you could get on a waiting list for a Duroc or Red Wattle, but I suspect it could be arranged.) Everything you eat, except for the cured meats, comes from that hog.
I'd had an all-beef dinner at Scuola di Pizza, inspired by the epic feasts on the terrace above Dario Cecchini's butcher shop in Chianti, but I became directly aware of Colby at the Cochon 555 at St. Vibiana's last spring, where five chefs prepared five pigs for a panel of pork-sotted jurors. The chefs, including a few renowned for their whole-hog dinners, made delicious food, but the event belonged to the Scuola chef, who put out mortadella dogs, pork butter and a fermented, cooked fennel salami that made the judges gasp even after three straight hours of pig-eating and natural wine.
Los Angeles has become salumi-obsessed of late, and most of the serious Italian restaurants in town have at least a house-cured guanciale or two ripening in the fridge. But Mozza's salumi program, reportedly the first to be certified, is pretty extensive. When the meat board shows up at Whole Hog, conversation fades into lustful stares.
When I stopped by last week (the pig was Berkshire), there was sweetly gamy coppa, slivers of fat pancetta wrapped around breadsticks, elegant sopressata, salami of every description. Hot grilled toast shows up seconds later, with pâtés — including soft, creamy ciccoli, slabs of head cheese and a dark, funky pâté made with the pig's heart and liver — to spread onto it. Platters of soft, rich stewed beans arrive not long after, piled with sausage patties made from ground belly and salty ribs cooked in a confit, then a light cheese soufflé on a long-cooked Bolognese sauce made from the leg.
A 10-hour roasted pork shoulder falls into shreds on the plate — be prepared to stab your neighbor with a fork if she snags the last piece of crunchy, fatty skin — and when you moisten it with a bit of the sharp salsa verde, the flavors almost glow. The loin is brined, then cooked in milk with onions and sage — the menu calls the clotted, delicious mess beneath the juicy pork "caramelized ricotta," which is something you should keep in mind the next time you cook the dish out of Marcella Hazan. For dessert, pasta bowls of gelato, garnished with lardy graham cracker pigs.
Is it a pop-up? The rules are vague here. But Whole Hog Dinners will distinctly restructure your week.
MOZZA | 6610 Melrose Ave., Mid-City | (323) 297-1130 | mozza2go.com | Pig dinner, food only, $75 per person
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