Road Foodie

Some people drive simply to arrive.

Pork Tour Postscript

Posted By on April 15, 2009

Porchetta just like the old country...

Porchetta just like the old country...

New York City. In the back of my mind a continuous loop displays a golden horizon bisected by a straight, lonely road. In the distance, I see a silver chariot (the Highlander) silently appear just where the road meets the sky in a shimmering heat haze, then make its way languidly toward my p.o.v. Hanging out the window with ears flapping in the hot breeze is a black and white dog….Screeech!
That was then, and this is now. It is cold, gray, and rainy in the city that never sleeps, and that’s all I want to do. I am here for the weekend to support C, but he’s teaching a class in the morning and then has both a matinee and an evening performance of Hamlet, so my support is of the non-contiguous variety. It’s now 11am and he won’t be back until 11pm. I’m tucked up on a dog-friendly sofa in the West Village home of a very generous friend, who is smart enough to be in Mexico right now, and I can’t shake the feeling that I came back to the east coast three weeks too early. It seems the winter of our economic and climactic discontent is not yet ready to loose its hold. In a perfect world, the West Village is a blissful place to while away a quiet Saturday, equidistant from any number of food meccas.
Not a welcoming day for walking.

Not a welcoming day for walking.

There is Chinatown, where I celebrated my first post-college Thanksgiving in a 5th-floor walk-up studio by serving goat couscous. And Bleecker Street (aka Pork and Cheese Central), where coils of broccoli raab-flecked sausage and lyrical sheep’s cheeses recline, just waiting for a visit from my generous upstate-provisioning cooler. Little Italy calls out with promises of cannoli and gelato. Even closer, in Soho, Joe’s Dairy makes the very best plain and salted mozzarella this city has to offer. Which is saying alot. (Once, on the way to Dean & Deluca, I walked past Joe’s at an hour when it wasn’t open. Inside the glass door of the diminutive shop, I could easily see a large man sitting on an upturned bucket, holding a mop straight upright in one hand. He was fast asleep.)
But on this day, the culinary riches of lower Manhattan seem wan and insubstantial. They beckon lamely, but I turn away. I am indoors with a warm dog, high definition television, and 800,000 good books to choose from. I am not budging.
Here now is my port in the storm.

Here now is my port in the storm.


Cut to 12 noon. On the dog-friendly coffee table—just next to where Stella is standing, looking at me quizzically—there is a stack of restaurant guides. My mind starts to wander, and I begin to think about pizza. I’ve heard about a new place called Co. that has reinvigorated the crust controversy upon which I am very opinionated. Maybe it’s close by, I fantasize, or close to a subway stop…The guides are, of course, already outdated, so I hit NY Magazine’s foolproof restaurant guide, and discover that Co. is not open for lunch. Now I start to muse upon the Crust King at Una Pizza Napoletana, where I have not yet been. It’s in the Village somewhere, right? Well, if you can consider 12th street in the EAST Village to be in the same neighborhood as Leroy Street and Hudson, I guess it’s not too far….but then the really serendipitous thing happens: I realize that Porchetta, the legendary storefront that purveys an estimable NY approximation of Tuscany’s most famous street food, is on 7th Street. Even closer!
There is fat, there is salt, and there is skin. God smiles.

There is fat, there is salt, and there is skin. God smiles.

I do not have rain boots. Our host has many, but we don’t share a shoe size. It is still raining, an endless dripping that is worse than a drizzle yet not a downpour. I pull on my trusty, 15-year-old once-suede cowboy boots, and hit the road to pork.
I walk up to Bleecker and turn right, then across sixth and over to Bowery, where I jog north half a block and then head east once more on 2nd Street. The long, crosstown blocks squelch by, and finally I am walking north on 1st Avenue. My left boot appears to have sprung a leak, and my long linen skirt is A. not enough protection from the elements and B. now soaked from mid-calf down. But there it suddenly is, on my right, a tiny storefront with only six stools in the window but, inside, a warm case displaying a religious vision: hunks of mahogany manna, crisscrossed with deep cuts that reveal the generosity of the toothsome fat. Eureka! And on this rotten weekend day, there are seats at the tiny counter. Immediately, I begin to ingratiate myself to the counter-woman, angling for an extra portion of crispy skin. But with a hint of speaking rote, she assures me that every dish receives its democratically-allocated portion. I’ll not be swaying her, I see. Choices are few, but all are fine. The “plate” comes with greens, but I have other pork plans for supper, and so opt for a sandwich, which comes on a Sullivan Street Bakery roll. (In true NY-is-a-tiny-town fashion, I note that the original motivation for me to get out on this rotten day, the new pizza joint, Co., is run by the same man as the bakery who made my roll.) While they slice in the back, I muse. Can this porchetta, which appears exceedingly promising, rival that offered by the porchetta truck at the Saturday market in Greve-in-Chianti? Back in the days that now seem like myth, we used to spend time there every summer, and my selfless provisioning for the group was always rewarded by a visit to the truck. There, skin-centric exhortations got me no discernable notice from the Italian girls in charge of slicing and portioning either; they’d seen it all before. I could have done handsprings in front of the truck and they’d still give me the same amount of skin, which is, in every situation involving pork skin, by definition never enough.
I know this much about the process: In Italy, an entire pig is boned out and stuffed with aggressively seasoned paste of salt and herbs. Here in the middle of NY, the proprietors of Porchetta have opted to simplify just slightly: they take the boned loin of a heritage pig and wrap it with a skin-on belly, insinuating the flavoring paste throughout. My sandwich is ready, and I grab a plastic cup and fill it with water from the crock on the counter, then squeeze myself into the corner with my dripping umbrella to commune with my porchetta. Immediately, I realize that it is as good as Greve’s. The bread is elastic, with nice irregular holes that trap any juices and fat that might be trying to escape, the meat is moist and flavorful, the occasional hits of salt and herbs counterpoint to the lush mouth-feel provided by the fat. And she has been true to her word. There is almost enough skin to satisfy even me. It’s tooth-shatteringly hard, and you run into little flecks here and there in the sandwich. But the crunchy brown fat that is attached to the skin is where I start to break down. This fat offers only token resistance to the tooth, and then you are through into the warm liquid center. Like some prehistoric dream of winter-banishing sustenance, it makes me forget the wind chill outside and the long, cold, and wet walk home.
The trudge home seems longer, perhaps because the soles of my boots are now saturated and my skirt whips wetly around my bare knees. I count off the blocks, blind to any charm that the village, east or west, may attempt to proffer. The streets are dirty and the people almost as gray as the sky. Easter is tomorrow, but neither lamb nor ham will grace my table because I’ll be on the road again, finally ferrying C to our upstate home. The cooler will be full of goodies, and eventually spring will come to the Hudson Valley. Meanwhile, once I get back to my warm dog and begin triage on my boots, I’ll sink into a blissful afternoon of warm dog and old movies. The discomforts of the longest, wettest walk will fade away, but memories of juicy-fatty-salty porchetta will linger in my drowsy, afternoon dreams.

Note: Roadfoodie is not usually a resource for recipes, but writing them is, actually, what I do for a living. In aid of those whose taste buds have been teased by endless porky ruminations on this site, I will post a recipe for wine-brined pork shoulder at the beginning of next week. The premise behind the much tested and tasted dish is that, if brining can make even supermarket pork tasty, then wine-brining should raise it to super-Tuscan porcine standards. And it does.

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