Editor’s note: This is the first in a new series, “Operations in action,” from The Schechter Report. It features behind-the-scenes looks at meal production in some of the country’s most interesting restaurants. The content here does not necessarily reflect the views of Nation’s Restaurant News.
Porchetta, a popular, slow-cooked Italian “fast food,” is a seasoned pork roast, traditionally prepared from a whole boned-out hog, stuffed with the liver, heart and other entrails mixed with savory herbs, and then tied and spit-roasted slowly over a wood fire. Porchetta is served sliced with side dishes or in sandwiches for a quick meal at festivals in Central Italy, as street food from butchers’ stalls in Rome or served up from white trucks along the roads outside of Florence.
Chef Sara Jenkins has built a reputation in New York City for her rustic Italian cooking at restaurants such as I Coppi, Il Buco and 50 Carmine, and has published her own cookbook, Olives & Oranges. She grew up traveling all over the Mediterranean with her parents, learning to cook the foods she loved and decided that she wanted to bring porchetta, a childhood favorite, to New York.
Along with her cousin, Matt Lindemulder, Jenkins opened Porchetta out of a cubbyhole East Village storefront — almost a food stall rather than a restaurant — in October 2008 to enthusiastic accolades. But with the logistics and ventilation issues associated with roasting whole pigs over wood fires in cramped New York City, Jenkins needed to use her knowledge and ingenuity to create her own technique for preparing porchetta.
Jenkins first sources premium pork to acquire high-quality, hormone- and antibiotic-free meat. And rather than bringing in whole, 300-pound hogs, Jenkins, inspired by lauded Tuscan butcher Dario Cecchini, butterflies half-sides. Taking the loin with the belly attached, skin on and ribs removed, she seasons the meat with rosemary, sage, garlic, salt and her key ingredient, wild fennel pollen. She then rolls and ties the pork for cooking.
The equipment that Jenkins relies on to prepare and serve porchetta in her very small space begins — and nearly ends — with a combi-oven, situated in the cramped, open back of the house to make use of an existing window for ventilation. The combi alternately provides dry and wet heat to prepare the wrapped loins. Moist heat keeps the interior of the pork loins tender, while the dry heat turns the skin wrapped around the loin beautifully golden and crisp.
A small, flat-top range adjacent to the combi provides back-up prep for the plain beans, crispy potatoes with burnt pork ends, greens or biscotti that accompany the main ingredient. A glass-fronted, hot-holding cabinet sits on the marble countertop and keeps the porchetta and its sides, contorni, at the proper 180 degrees required by the health department. A low-boy refrigerator under the serving counter, along with a reach-in refrigerator and a reach-in freezer provide cold storage.
Although Porchetta is geared for takeout, with to-go orders wrapped in brown butcher paper, six metal stools along a wooden ledge provide a place to eat off of heavy china if one desires, and the traditional white tile of the floor and walls in the storefront give the tiny space an almost old-world ambiance.