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    The Product: Porchetta, Digging into Italian Culinary History

    by Katherine Sacks with Will Blunt
    Will Blunt, Autumn Stein, and Shannon Sturgis Will Blunt
    July 2012

    Recipe

    Porchetta Facts

    Alternatives:
    Lamb, rabbit

    Cooking:
    Traditional Method: Select a small pig, between 6 and 8 months old. De-bone completely and season with salt, pepper, rosemary, thyme, sage, garlic, and fennel, depending on regional and taste preferences. Depending on size of pig, cook for 6 to 12 hours, at 400°F, cool, slice, and serve.

    Modern Method:
    To create porchetta in a small oven, use a suckling pig or shoulder or loin meat. Or debone a whole rabbit, roll, and sous vide.

    Cost:
    Suckling pig: $90 whole pig yields $28 per plate product
    Pork shoulder: $34 15-pound pork shoulder yields $26 per plate product

    Playing Porketta:
    In the densely Italian populated town of Sudbury, Ontario, porchetta is so popular, Sunday afternoons often include a rousing hand of "Porketta Bingo." Players of all ages join in for a simple card game, in which the winner is crowned victor with the prize of one pound of porchetta.

    Get a Taste:
    Hungry for porchetta yet? Sample Sara Jenkin’s porchetta at her Eat@ICC food cart at the 7th Annual StarChefs.com International Chefs Congress.

    Think about the tender, herb-packed flavor of a porchetta sandwich, and it's easy to see why crowds are rushing to Williamsburg's Smorgasbord or seeking out the off-the-beaten-path gems in Italy for a taste. The flavor, with all its juicy, gustatory goodness, epitomizes Italian cuisine. But the dish also has deep roots—it's one of country's earliest specialties, dating back to the Roman Empire.

    Recipe for History

    "Porchetta is a beautiful story, one of the older recipes we have in Italy," says Culinary Historian Nicolò Di Stefano, who has studied the origins of Italian cuisine in a collection of 12th and 13th century cookbooks in the Vatican's libraries. "We are a little unsure about dates, names, and who created porchetta," he says, but what scholars do know is that the dish most likely got its start in Ariccia, a city outside of Rome. And although there are disagreements when it comes to the "traditional variety" between Roman and Umbrian natives, Ariccia is the only town to earn the Ministero delle Politiche Agricole, Alimentari e Forestali, designating porchetta as a "prodotto agroalimentare tradizionale," a list of traditional Italian foods held in cultural reverence.

    Cooking porchetta is a laborious process—a whole deboned pig is seasoned, rolled, and cooked on a pit—which is why the meal was historically reserved for a crowd. "There is proof of porchetta coming from the 15th century," says Di Stefano, "where we had a holiday on Sundays and the porchetta was practically the focus point."

    The dish was also a favorite of Rome's infamous Nero and often served in Roman army camps, affording a nourishing meal to hungry soldiers and members of the poorer classes, who often ate the quinto quanto (the fifth parts such as organ meats). And while today's porchetta cooks on a spit for six to eight hours, the ancient Roman version was cooked underground. "They made a big hole, a rustic pit, and roasted it," says Di Stefano. "[Eventually] it evolved into cooking in the oven."

    Producing Porchetta

    Porchetta is still a staple throughout Italy today—the roasted pork panini can be found in sandwich shops, sold out of food trucks and vans, and on restaurant menus. Commercial production facilities, like Cariani Porchetta Umbria, have replaced the rustic fire pit, helping to keep Italy's traditions alive while providing these outfits with the roasted meat in a manageable fashion.

    "It's an ancient recipe a bit modified according to the tastes," says Cariani Owner Guilano Cariani. Started 50 years ago, the family-owned company uses 7- to 8-month-old pigs bred in Umbria, 100 kilograms in weight. After the butchering process, the meat is rubbed with classic Umbrian seasonings of salt, pepper, rosemary, garlic, and wild fennel, then stuffed with the liver and the heart and cooked on a stainless steel pole in the oven until the skin is crispy and the meat is silky and tender.

    The Roman version, found at such holes-in-the-wall as Roman favorite Er Buchetto, is similar but features rosemary and forgoes the innards. "It tastes completely different," says Di Stefano. "With the fennel you have the accent of sweetness, but the Roman one is a bit more rustic."

    Updated Italian Classic

    For a taste of porchetta stateside, head to another cramped storefront. Modeled off the Italian versions she tasted during her childhood in Rome, Chef Sara Jenkins is happy to provide tender, fennel-scented pork, along with über-crispy skin, at her West Village shop Porchetta. And while Italians can get pretty serious about sticking to tradition when it comes to ingredients, Jenkins's version is not quite a mirror-image of the Italian staple.

    "We don't have as much of a culture of looking at whole animals," says Jenkins. "When I grew up in Italy you would go into a butcher shop and there would be three lambs hanging there with their tongues hanging out, blood everywhere." The original version of porchetta, she explains, comes with a variety of flavors and textures—the crispy skin, rich tender pork, and center portion of earthy heart and liver. "An Italian knows what they want and what they are getting, and an American doesn't. They don't grow up eating it."

    When Jenkins decided to offer Americans the pork dish, she looked to simplicity, choosing to use only the skin-on loin and belly from Niman Ranch. Seasoned vigorously with fennel pollen, rolled up, and roasted overnight in an Electrolux oven, Jenkins holds her pork warm and serves the sandwiches with a little bit of everything: the crispy skin, fatty belly, and aromatics. It's a sandwich that has helped popularize porchetta in New York. "Every slice is more or less the same thing," says Jenkins. "It's smaller and more manageable."

    Cariani Porchetta Farm  –  Montefalco, Italy

    Cariani Porchetta Farm – Montefalco, Italy

    Owner Gialiorna Carioni of Cariani Porchetta Farm  –  Montefalco, Italy

    Owner Gialiorna Carioni of Cariani Porchetta Farm – Montefalco, Italy

    Cariani Porchetta Farm  –  Montefalco, Italy

    Cariani Porchetta Farm – Montefalco, Italy

    Cariani Porchetta Farm  –  Montefalco, Italy

    Cariani Porchetta Farm – Montefalco, Italy

    Cariani Porchetta Farm  –  Montefalco, Italy

    Cariani Porchetta Farm – Montefalco, Italy

    Cariani Porchetta Farm  –  Montefalco, Italy

    Cariani Porchetta Farm – Montefalco, Italy

    Cariani Porchetta Farm  –  Montefalco, Italy

    Cariani Porchetta Farm – Montefalco, Italy

    Cariani Porchetta Farm  –  Montefalco, Italy

    Cariani Porchetta Farm – Montefalco, Italy

    Cariani Porchetta Farm  –  Montefalco, Italy

    Cariani Porchetta Farm – Montefalco, Italy

    Porchetta sandwich from Chef Sara Jenkins - New York, NY

    Porchetta sandwich from Chef Sara Jenkins - New York, NY

    Cashier James Bonarrigo and Sous Chef Sammy Estevez of Porchetta – New York, NY

    Cashier James Bonarrigo and Sous Chef Sammy Estevez of Porchetta – New York, NY

    Er Buchetto  –  Rome, Italy

    Er Buchetto – Rome, Italy

    Er Buchetto  –  Rome, Italy

    Er Buchetto – Rome, Italy

    Chef-owner Alessandro Fioravanti of Er Buchetto  –  Rome, Italy

    Chef-owner Alessandro Fioravanti of Er Buchetto – Rome, Italy

    Er Buchetto  –  Rome, Italy

    Er Buchetto – Rome, Italy

    Er Buchetto  –  Rome, Italy

    Er Buchetto – Rome, Italy

    At New York's Bocca Chef James Corona chooses to use the pork shoulder instead, claiming the flavor is the most indigenous to the traditional version you'll find in the tri-state area, thanks to the presence of the bone. "It's a more fibrous area, near the bone," he explains. "The flavor is unprecedented." After removing the shoulder bone, his team splits the shoulder and marinates the meat for several days in a combination of fennel, sage, rosemary, kosher salt, and lemon zest. "It's an austere, rustic cut of meat prepared with a lot of love," he says.

    It may not be exactly the stuff of Italian food trucks, but porchetta actually refers more to the cooking method than the final dish, so Jenkins and Corona aren't that far off either. "Porchetta is actually a kind of way you make the meat," says Di Stefano, who also works as a manager at Bocca. "The Romans also do the lamb in the same way, stuffed with herbs and wrapped, and [also] the rabbit." The dish is becoming so popular with chefs outside Italy that the cooking method is also being mimicked, as in Las Vegas Chef Jason Neve's modern sous vide rabbit version.

    And it's not just American porchetta imitations and interpretations. The dish has also influenced Italian-American culture, from Philadelphia's cheesesteak battles to the city's other famous sandwich, roast pork with broccoli rabe.

    Pushing into Modernity with Porchetta

    Regardless of how it's done—whole pork or rabbit, roasted loin, or served alongside some rabe—at the end of the day this Italian specialty is simply, and exquisitely, a roasted meat sandwich. Not that it couldn't be adapted. "I have no idea if someone could be making a porchetta with foam," says Jenkins, referring to a possible modern application. "I hesitate to say it's as ubiquitous as a hamburger, but it's pretty standard."

    It might not quite match zeal for that all-American sandwich, but national interest is increasing when it comes to porchetta. They may not have grown up tasting its varied flavor, but stateside taste buds are definitely starting to demand the flavor. The Italian staple has reached a new culinary height—you can find it everywhere from Michael White's Osteria Morini to Il Buco's $16 version.

    Why does a simple pork panino have such an allure? Imagine a whole hog roasting on a spit, and it's popularity becomes clear. The dish is a true exemplar of Italian history and cuisine. And as we continue to see innovative chefs creating their own versions, and disciples of Italian cuisine reinvent the sandwich (on their terms), the dish is also bridging modern menus, showcasing both the "origins and frontiers" of Italian cuisine.