Sara Jenkins is either divinely prescient or just plain lucky. Her shiny new East Village shop, Porchetta, arrives at the precise moment when New Yorkers’ highly honed palates demand top-quality, carefully sourced, beautifully cooked food but their economy-shocked wallets can’t necessarily spring for it. Add to that the fact that we somehow haven’t reached a saturation point for pork—Porchetta’s luscious raison d’être, and the centerpiece of its eight-item menu—but rather seem to gain a new appreciation for it every day. The idea, like most Italian cooking, is brilliant in its simplicity. In fact, it’s kind of surprising no one’s thought of it before. But for Jenkins, who grew up in Tuscany and has cooked in Manhattan kitchens like 50 Carmine and Il Buco, the modest pig-based enterprise is no mere gimmick but a passionate pursuit. “I love porchetta,” she says. “The minute I get off the plane in Italy, I go get porchetta.”
And what, you ask, is this porchetta? Traditionally, it’s a gutted, boned-out whole hog heavily seasoned and restuffed with some of its innards, rolled up like a porky bûche de Noël, and then spit-roasted over a wood fire. Served in slices or in sandwiches, it’s a festival dish but also a popular street food, and can be found at the finer food stalls and butcher shops of Rome as well as dished out from trucks and vans set up along the highways outside of Florence. It is to the town of Ariccia—widely regarded as the porchetta capital of the world—what the hot dog is to Coney Island.
The logistics of roasting whole hogs over wood fires in cramped East Village cubbyholes being what they are, Jenkins’s version is a variation on the porchetta theme, and a toothsome one at that. She uses boned-out pork loins from contented, free-rooting Hampshire hogs, wraps them in pork bellies, and seasons them with a heady paste of wild-fennel pollen, thyme, sage, rosemary, garlic, and an aggressive dose of salt and pepper. These substantial specimens are tied up with string and oven-roasted until the meat is remarkably tender and the skin has turned to something like the color and consistency of a delicate peanut brittle.
Visitors to this handsomely tiled, marble-countered storefront can take their porchetta straight or in a sandwich—the former accompanied by garlicky sautéed greens and wonderful beans that keep their integrity, the latter stuffed into a Sullivan St Bakery ciabatta roll. There are crisp roast potatoes, too, mingled with porchetta “burnt ends,” and a chicory salad with a bracing garlic dressing. There is also, for the disoriented vegetarian, a fresh-mozzarella sandwich, smartly garnished with sweet semi-dried tomatoes and chopped herbs.
Although Porchetta is geared for takeout, Jenkins and her partners have made the minuscule premises a comfortable and civilized place to eat in, too, with six stools lining a wooden ledge, a wooden bench outside, and a convivial, almost old-world ambience. Takeout orders are wrapped in brown butcher paper; eat-in ones are served on old-fashioned grandma-style china. If it weren’t for the high-tech Electrolux oven and the reggae soundtrack, you might imagine you’d wandered into some friendly old taverna on the outskirts of Rome or Florence, where some talented super-nonna is carefully crafting you a plate of food she’s slaved over all day. All of this, of course, makes for a great new addition to East Village dining. What elevates it to citywide-attraction and four-U.G.-star-status, though, is the pork. Porchetta’s porchetta is drop-dead delicious, abundantly juicy, aggressively seasoned, and varied in its myriad textures, from the moist, fine-grained loin meat to the chewy fatty crackling, and the little melting baconlike bits that season the potatoes. It fills the shop with a lovely aroma that wafts its way down the block, causing startled passersby to lift their noses and sniff the air like cartoon hoboes on the trail of a windowsill pie. Resistance is futile.