Pig Heaven

The calls for Jules Esposito’s 100-pound porchetta are what they’ve always been – the springtime street fair, the wedding, the simple backyard party, celebrations of life’s passages, ordinary and profound.

Porchetta is the traditional boneless, roasted pig made from the way they’ve been making it in Italy, well, forever. “The recipe,” says Esposito, a cousin of the Ninth Street meat purveyors, “is literally centuries old.”

You stick with what works, which in the case of porchetta are natural seasonings, said to have antibacterial properties – meaning, Jules says, that a properly roasted pig will keep all day outside at a festival.

So Jules makes the pig in the manner of his late father, Elia, who made the pig the way his people in Abruzzo did, except that now there are indoor ovens that cut the old 15-hour cooking time in half.

During busy times, his crew can crank out 60, even 80 pigs a week from the rowhouse-size shop in South Philly.

Porhcetta clicks a button in people, flips them back a few centuries: Fire, fat, pig, eat. We’re talking elemental here: The pig is sold on a board, head on, legs displayed, ready to be carried overhead to your medieval table.

My first encounter was a few years ago at the Italian Market’s street festival – a big, golden pig, the meat drenched in garlic, the carvers barely keeping up with customers grabbing at the sandwiches.

Behind the porchetta were gravy pots for ladling the juice on, making the thing so sloppy and delicious I lost restraint and ate way too much.

It’s a grand phenomenon: the sight of an entire beast, the glistening pile or pork, the intensity of the flavor. There’s a salty tang, with soft, suffusing black pepper, generous rosemary and garlic that has worked its way into every fiber of the meat.

The process starts in the front room of a 100-year-old former bakery. Two workers – Chuck (“Don’t use my last name”), who’s part Egyptian, and Tyce Peterson, part African – set about reengineering the carcasses of the corn-fed Lancaster County pigs. Ribs are separated from the backbone. Stomach fat is stripped out. Skin is loosened and more fat is cut out.

By the time they have finished, the pig has been butterflied, sprinkled with garlic cloves and spices, and laced up like a football around a stainless steel pole.

The pole isn’t a spit. It’s there for two reasons – to conduct heat to the interior and help in lifting the newly spineless pig. Holes are poked in the skin so the pig doesn’t swell up in the oven; it’s baked at 420 degrees for six ours or more.

Temperature, the heat emanating from the old bricks in the ancient bread oven, is important, Esposito tells me. Cook it too high, you dry the meat out; too low, the skin comes up like plastic, not crisp and crackling.

Frankly, the little pigs are flavorful, but don’t have enough juicy body fat. The bigger ones are meatier and moister.

Esposito has porchettas up to 170 pounds if you feel the urge, suddenly, to feed the entire block or, say, your favorite fancy brigade.



Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine: Food Section