Suckling pig is one of those mythic, tribal delicacies that city-dwelling northerners dream of but rarely see. Travelers from the South tell tales of its greatness, like Marco Polo bringing news of noodles from Cathay. They talk of back-country pig pickings and bodegas serving crackly portions of pork tasting of smoke and candied apples. Trying to find these delicacies in Manhattan, they say, is like looking for a decent bowl of clam chowder in Tibet. But every now and then, the rumor of a legitimate roast pig runs, like wildfire, through certain wide-bodied circles around town. The latest one comes from TriBeCa, where a restaurant called Pico opened for business about a month ago. The cuisine at Pico (named for an island in the Azores) is Portuguese, a fact that barely registered with ravenous pig aesthetes I know. They spoke of a rich, honeyed confection, folded in crispy layers and served under a silver dome. "Get your butt down there," one of them said, a little incoherently, over the telephone. "It's the real thing."
There are actually two roast-pig dishes on the menu at Pico, a lighter pork loin (served Alentejo-style, with steamed cockles, for lunch) and the more substantial suckling pig (served at dinner). Pico's co-owner and executive chef, John Villa -- who's from New Jersey, not Portugal, and used to be executive chef at JUdson Grill -- heisted the latter recipe from the Portuguese province of Bairrada, where pig-roasting techniques have evolved over a millennium or so. The pork is rubbed on the inside with a mix of garlic, parsley, and sea salt. It's spit-roasted for four hours, basted with white wine, then brushed with citrus and honey. The finished product is cut width-wise like a jelly roll, then presented on a bed of spinach. Both times I sampled it, the skin was crunchy, thin and colored in different shades of caramel. The meat had a delicate, gamy quality and was moist enough to pull apart with a fork.
Of course, there's more to Portuguese cuisine than pig, and there's more to Pico than this singular dish. The restaurant is on Greenwich Street, in a beamed, redbrick space on the bottom floor of the old Bazzini nut warehouse. The chef's wife, Regina Graves, is a movie-set designer by profession, and she's decorated the room with gold-tasseled chairs, swooping banquettes, and oversize lampshades, like a mildly cartoonish version of some musty Iberian castle. The courteous waitstaff dress in grave, dark suits, and the mournful sounds of Portuguese fado music play over the sound system, as diners peck at Villa's interpretations of old standards like codfish bacalhau cakes and escabèche of sardines. The bacalhau is mixed with bits of parsley and cilantro (and too much potato, to my taste) and served with a colorful salad of radishes, blood oranges, and beets. In Portugal, sardines are consumed by the bundle, and Villa's escabèche has a cool, melting quality, and the fish are barely visible under a nouvelle thatch of hydroponic roughage.
These dishes were appetizers, and if anything, a few of them seemed a little too light. My order of grilled octopus (marinated in olive oil and lime) was covered in another fragile plume of greens, and took about three bites to consume. Seared tuna was cut wafer-thin and plated in an odd checkerboard pattern with diaphanous slivers of half-ripe mango. Villa tended to have more success with stout, Portuguese originals, like Açorda bread soup, a spongy helping of peasant bread in chicken consommé with two raw quail eggs floating on the surface. My favorite of all the appetizers was a bowl of steamed cockles. The shells were the size of big buttons and rested in a light vino verde sauce, flavored with bay leaves, mint, and a hint of cilantro. The concoction was flecked with slices of chorizo, and as the shells disappeared, a sprinkling of chewy, savory sausage collected at the bottom of the bowl.
These satisfying touches carry over to the main portion of Villa's menu. I sampled a tender saddle of rabbit, wrapped in fatty Portuguese bacon and doused in a bubbly mustard emulsion. The rack of lamb was crusted with bay leaf and paprika, and expertly sliced at the table in the classic Continental style. Fillets of grilled sargo (sea bream) were served the same way, over a tasty walnut-pesto-style mash, and a portion of brook trout appeared with a mound of pearly green onions and chanterelles on top. Among poultry dishes, the duck was dry the night I tried it, although its bed of rice, raisins, and chorizo was good. Villa has created a kind of Portuguese-Francophile recipe for squab. The bird is flat-roasted to perfection and sweetened with a mixture of cloves, cumin, and cinnamon. It's accompanied to the table by a sizable cake of fava beans, then covered in spoonfuls of poultry jus from a little silver pot.
Pico is not one of those bouncy downtown joints. The service is impeccably mannered (you'll get a finger bowl with your cockles), and the crowd is a subdued mixture of uptown émigrés and TriBeCa matrons dressed in shiny leather pants. There is a good selection of provincial Portuguese wines in their squat green bottles (try the '95 Porta Dos Cavaleiros, from Dao, with your pig). The cheese trolley is filled with Portuguese goat and sheep cheeses, to be eaten with a traditional slice of quince paste. For dessert, there's a blood-orange mousse, served like a Napoleon between wafers of orange tuile, and there's also a wedge of bread pudding soaked in Portuguese brandy. But best of all are the traditional sonhos, dignified doughnut holes rolled in sugar and cinnamon. These little puff pastries are served on a white napkin with bowls of chocolate sauce and raspberry coulis for dipping, and they're as close as you'll get, in snowbound Manhattan, to a taste of the real thing.
Pico 349 Greenwich Street (212-343-0700). Lunch, Monday through Saturday noon to 2:30 p.m.; dinner, Monday through Thursday 5:30 to 10:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday till 11:15 p.m. Appetizers, $10 to $15; entrées, $24 to $34. All major credit cards.