In today’s restaurant scene, the pig is the undisputed king of meats. Maybe the ad campaign for the other white meat propelled its popularity, but I believe it’s the porcine versatility that has led to its great appreciation. Purists have always touted full utilization of an animal after its slaughter, and the pig may offer the most rewarding culinary experiences to those daring enough to try more than just the chops and ribs. Sure, there is belly, the tenderloin, ground shoulder for sausage, the butt for braising, and rib bacon - but once the trotters (feet), tongue, skin, tail, organs and head are in play, everything else just seems less appealing. Suddenly, the (in)famous [Philly] scrapple that is a mélange of this secondary set of pig parts is not as grotesque as it once seemed. Perhaps it is the result of the media-driven culture in which we live, where full exposure of a whole animal’s true merits from a gustatory perspective has made it worth the risk to try those cuts that were once deemed usable only in peasant dishes. Now, they’re the prized possessions that magnify a menu and sell out first.
In Philadelphia, as in many cities, dining out is more adventurous than ever. Twenty years ago, if you saw pied de cochon (pig’s feet) on a menu, you would probably sneer, then walk away in search of a ham sandwich. But today, put fried pig’s tails, lardo crostini, chicharrónes (pork rinds - visit Barbuzzo) and braised stuffed pig’s feet (à la Bibou) on the chalkboard and lines will form out the door.
On a recent pizza crawl in Philly with a Baltimore restaurateur undertaking research for his own haute pizzeria, I stopped in Osteria, the rustic yet industrial space that is a member of the Vetri family. I anticipated a few traditional and Neapolitan pies as the centerpieces to our last meal of the evening, but little did I know that the singular pizza we ordered would be an afterthought. This is not to say that the wholly seasonal primavera with asparagus, ramps and fresh ricotta was underwhelming; we were simply seduced by an unforgettable pork dish that literally left us breathless.
Chef and owner Jeff Michaud generously gifted us his fire-roasted baby pig’s head for our first course. Even as it was brought to the table, we gushed at its near arrival and sat slack-jawed momentarily. I had read about this intoxicating appetizer before our visit, and I relished it even as our server announced it as a special that night. Presented on a large platter surrounded by olive oil-drizzled bruschetta and homemade apricot jelly, the dish was a theatrical first-act that demanded applause before it literally opened its mouth. Chef Michaud’s suckling pig head is initially basted in a beer agrodolce - comprised of beer, sugar, garlic, chili flakes and orange zest - then roasted in the oven for ten to twelve minutes. It is rotated three to four times while cooking, and when finished, retains a charred texture and smoky aroma from the wood-fire. Upon presentation, the glazed skin was reddish-brown and crispy to the fork’s touch. Because the pig is slaughtered at such a young age, between the age of two and six weeks, the texture of the meat can be somewhat gelatinous due to the amount of collagen. However, this only adds moistness and a gusto to each bite, as fat equals flavor. Appearing as if sleeping, with its mouth shut and snout resting comfortably, the baby pig offered itself to us as we prepared to indulge and satisfy our bizarre, inner Andrew Zimmern.
I attacked first and gently pried the tender meat from the right cheek, also known as the jowl. That initial bite was slightly dipped in the natural juices and sweet and sour sauce that melded together to create a delectable pool along the edges of the plate. The meat was ridiculously juicy and full-flavored. When draped atop the garlicky toasted bread and spread with the apricot paste, the result was a happy tangle of textures. The 2008 Vespa Bianco from the Bastianich Estate, a Friulian white wine comprised of 45% chardonnay, 45% sauvignon blanc, and 10% picolit, paired wonderfully with each mouthful. The high acid, structured tannins and citrus notes balanced with and cut the pork’s fat while matching its richness.
The neck offered another source of gratification as well as a substantial bounty. Delicately tearing the crunchy skin away to combine with the velvety pink flesh became an artistic movement at which we quickly became adept. I’m sure other diners gazed at us begrudgingly as we nestled our forks and knives into the head’s cavity, seeking out the inner depths of soft meat that melted on the tongue like gelatin. We opened up the jaws to expose and devour the tongue, and were even tempted to savor the soft, jelly-like eyes - but we saved those for a future visit. Slowly the once colorful, shiny delicacy began to resemble a carcass discarded by giggling hyenas. We smiled in grand appreciation as we eyed the empty plate, realizing we were granted a privilege to relish the delicious rewards offered by that young creature.
The rest of the meal arrived, including a fabulous porchetta tonnato with arugula, celery, and parmigiano, and a beautifully-made sweet pea malloreddus with lamb ragu and mint that expressed the passion and tradition of house-made pasta. Our minds, however, constantly drifted back to the beginning, reminiscing the flavors and aroma of that perfectly prepared pig that will surely resonate weeks from now.