Walk into a remarkable number of L.A. restaurants these days, particularly on certain chef-designated nights, and you'll be overwhelmed by the ode to pig that is porchetta. Read the menus, calligraphied on beautiful paper or scrawled on chalkboards, and you'll find that rustic Italian dish of long-roasted pork perfumed with fennel and garlic, with a burnished carapace of insanely tasty, crispy skin. Somebody's pig, your epiphany.
Porchetta is trendy now, but long before it began turning up in the lofty, open kitchens of L.A.'s new gastropubs, it was on the menus of the city's must-try restaurants: served tableside at Angelini Osteria; as a whole suckling pig at Lucques; sliced to order at La Bottega Marino and presented, with lime-green salsa verde or in a minimalist's sandwich, just like chef-owner Sal Marino had it as a kid from a truck in Naples.
Porchetta, maybe more than other great Italian dishes, has been mythologized so that it's more than the sum of its few parts: pig and salt, herbs and seasonings. It's a dish that can invoke fond memories of Tuscany, descriptions of dinner that seem more like pagan rituals, and the kind of happy zealotry that makes you want to quit your job, like Bill Buford once kind of did, and fly to Italy to stalk famed butcher Dario Cecchini, invoked by chefs as the patron saint of porchetta.
If you don't already have an Instagram account filled with sepia shots of a fleet of Umbrian porchetta trucks, here's a thumbnail sketch of a dish that can mean many things to many people. As Sotto chef Steve Samson describes it, “Even in Italy, porchetta has become a fairly generic term. It's good food, and if it's done right, you can call it whatever you want.” Or as Evan Kleiman emailed the other day, it's “one of the most masterful things you can do” with a pig, “besides turning it into North Carolina pulled pork.” Of course.
Porchetta can be from Umbria or Sardinia, or whichever quadrant of Italy you call your genetic or spiritual home. (Nearly every region has its own variation, the rights as hotly disputed as regional German beer.) It can be a whole pig, deboned or not, a mature animal weighing as much as your teenage kid, stuffed with innards and fennel pollen and garlic. It can be the trunk of such a pig, head and tail removed, laced with aromatics, sewn back up and roasted over a wood fire until the skin is as bubbled and bronzed as a sheet of lacquered caramel. It can be a whole suckling pig, split and seasoned, impaled and roasted upright on sticks. It can be a leg or a whole shoulder, long-roasted and crisped. It can be a loin, wrapped with a separate sheet of pork belly, rolled and tied with butcher's twine. “Like a turducken,” says Barbrix chef Don Dickman.
Dickman has been making porchetta since his now-shuttered Rocca opened in 2003. “When you go to Italy, there's so much porchetta everywhere,” he says, “it's kind of like In-N-Out.”
It can be called porchetta or porcetto or even porketta, if you're reading this in subzero temperatures on the Minnesota Iron Range, where you can find an uncooked preparation for sale in a surprising number of butcher shops and neighborhood grocery stores, thanks to the vicissitudes of Italian immigration.
Of the current wave of L.A. porchetta practitioners, Evan Funke is perhaps the latest to hit the streets — in his case, literally. The chef launched his Porchetta Truck in December as a mobile experiment and, in effect, advertisement for Bucato, his soon-to-open Italian restaurant.
Funke had an epiphany on his latest R&D trip to Umbria. There, he spent weeks considering and consuming the porchetta served up by Italy's neighborhood food trucks, many of which specialize in the dish. He credits “a certain porcheteria 30 miles outside of Rome,” where a guy sews his porchetta closed with sailing twine before roasting it for nine hours. Funke's porchetta comprises “seven ingredients for seven hours, eight if you count the pig. The pig goes without saying.”
Downtown at Casey Lane's the Parish, there are rhombus-shaped ice cubes in your cocktail glass and bone marrow on the menu. But there are also, on Tuesdays, enormous plates of porchetta — a fact Lane attributes to the pigs he gets in every week from Stone Valley Farm, a small, heritage pig producer in Northern California. For Lane and others of the Fergus Henderson school of whole-hog cooking, the rise of porchetta could be attributed to a surfeit of pig as much as the mythology of Italian cuisine — although there is certainly a great deal of crossover.
There's also an occasional porchetta special at Milo & Olive, and a stunning version, seasoned or not, cooked or raw, from the artisan butchers Lindy & Grundy. At Bestia, the Italian restaurant that Bill Chait has somehow jigsawed into an apartment loft complex where a normal person would have put a coffee shop, chef Ori Menashe has been making one of the best porchettas in town. Not a spiral of pig components but a whole suckling pig. Menasche orchestrates it on both Friday and Saturday nights — one pig each night — like a weekend floor show.
For Menasche, an alum of Angelini Osteria, La Terza, All'Angelo and Pizzeria Mozza, porchetta is beloved for its humble origins: “It's like a family gathering.”
Menasche brines the Sonoma County crossbred pigs for 24 hours in a solution that includes orange zest, fennel seed, juniper berries, bay leaves and rosemary. The pig is roasted whole over wild fennel and garlic, in a white oak–fired oven, then carved on a board and served bone-in, the absurdly tender meat falling off the bone between bites of greenery, Anson Mills polenta, roasted apples and kumquats. But the best part is the skin, a mahogany cracker of blasted fat that crowns the dish like an edible lid.
Chefs Steve Samson and Zach Pollack serve their porcetto — note the spelling — in the manner of Sardinia at their Pico-Robertson restaurant, Sotto. “It's not a whole suckling pig, but it's closer,” Pollack says, explaining the difference in spelling and genre. Their version is more an “homage” to the Sardinian version. They get pigs from Devil's Gulch Ranch in Marin County, deconstruct them into two pork bellies per pig, season and fire them at 500-degree-plus temperatures until the skin puffs, then roast them for four more hours at a lower temperature. Eventually the alchemized pork arrives at your table, but only during lunchtime, in sandwich form.
Mozza's Chad Colby tried more than a dozen recipes for his porchetta before settling on the one he serves at Mozza2Go — and, rumor has it, maybe at the upcoming Chi SPACCA iteration of the Mozza complex. Colby's porchetta is made from the whole heritage pig he gets in every two weeks — he's made porchetta with Gloucestershire Old Spots, reportedly the favorite heritage pig of the British royal family.
Colby deconstructs the loin and belly and poaches the intact piece before roasting the porchetta for 9 ½ hours in a convection oven. “It's a way to get the aesthetic of Mexican chicharron,” he says. Colby credits inspiration for the dish not only to Mozza co-owner Nancy Silverton, who has long had a house in Umbria, and St. Cecchini himself, but also to the Oaxacan cooks at the restaurant. “You know how Italians are: 'It's not real!' But it's good.”
At least one Italian couldn't be persuaded, even by the old-school version. Salvatore Marino says his late father, Ciro, who ran Marino's restaurant in Hollywood for more than a quarter of a century, never put porchetta on the menu, deeming it “too peasant” a dish. Not so his son. Marino has made it since 2007 at La Bottega Marino.
There, it's for sale by the pound or the slice, tucked into crusty, house-made bread in an approximation of the street food Sal Marino ate as a kid growing up in Naples. Marino's porchetta is pork shoulder, heavily seasoned and wrapped with belly, then roasted at high temperature for hours on large chunks of carrots and onions. “You just want to elevate it; if we could put it on rocks, we'd use rocks,” he explains. A glorious, lacquered mosaic of pig, his porchetta, both street food and utter comfort food.
But maybe the best example of porchetta in L.A. before the Portlandia era of pig fetishization is the glorious plate borne aloft on Saturday nights at Angelini Osteria. Gino Angelini has had porchetta, in the form of a fennel-infused, long-roasted, whole leg of pork, on the menu for the better part of a decade. On those weekend nights it becomes a show, the crowded tables seeming to part as the server weaves and parries, coming to rest beside your table, where it is carved with midcentury flourish and presented like the answer to all your prayers. Maybe it is.