My first trip to Italy in the 1990’s was a big eye opener for me. I saw some amazing sights: Pompeii, Assisi, Florence, Milan, and all of the countryside in between. I honed defensive driving skills in Naples! But most of all I learned a new way of enjoying food. The food lessons Italy taught me are how meals are composed and how different (and often simple) cooking techniques are used to make elegant dishes. The foods of Italy have little in common with the endless pasta bowls in the Italian restaurants I had experienced at home.
On that trip while in the area of Florence (Firenze) my wife and I stayed two nights in the Tuscan town of Fiesole. Fiesole was established in the 8thor 9th century B.C. in the Etruscan civilization. It is about 5 miles from Florence. My thought was that after spending a busy day touring museums in bustling, urban Florence, it would be nice to retire to a quiet town for the evening. Fiesole was all of that and more. Walking around after dinner, we discovered that there was much to see right here, so we decided that we would spend our departure day seeing the sights of Fiesole. There are interesting ruins, including an ancient amphitheater which is still used for events today. There is a museum of Etruscan relics, a great place to learn about the pre-Roman Etruscan culture and art.
While viewing the museum’s artifacts, a wonderful smell started to waft into the halls. It was morning and we had eaten breakfast, but the smell became irresistible. We decided that we would seek its source as soon as we were through the museum. Upon exiting the museum, we immediately saw the source of the fantastic aroma. In Fiesole’s piazza were rotisseries turning small, golden, crisp skinned pigs over wood coals. Where had this been all of my life? We had to have this.
While it was only late morning, a long queue had formed. I went to see what people were getting. I saw the pigs had been deboned and rolled up in their skin with herbs. Slices of the crisp pig were served with fried potatoes. I listened to how the locals were ordering the food; what they asked for and what they received. I repeated the order over in my head and got in line. In minutes, I emerged from the line with two plates of pork, fried potatoes and glasses of local wine. Success! It was delicious.
By now my blog readers must know that I had to make this at home. I made several versions using a boneless pork shoulder roast, trimmed and cut to make it as uniform in thickness as possible, then stuffed with a mixture of fennel, garlic, parsley, black pepper, and salt. The best versions were rolled up and tied, then cooked on the rotisserie of my Weber kettle charcoal grill. I also cooked a whole 50# pig with bones, stuffed with the herb and spice mix and then slowly barbecued on my Porkulator. This was also very good, but lacking the crisp exterior I sought.
I had the dish several more times in Italy. The last was on our trip to Rome a few years ago. We went to the market at Campo De Fiori, and then sat down for lunch at one of the many restaurants that ring the open air market. I had seen porchetta on the rotisserie at this place, and knew what I wanted to eat! I ordered the porchetta, and the server said that it was just for walk-up customers, not for diners seated in the restaurant. I had to convince the server to make an exception for me, which I was glad they could accommodate.
I finally had an idea of how to make this dish at home. I used a whole pork loin as the main cut of pork. I cut it in two equal pieces to make it easier to manage and cook. With the fat side up, I cut through the side of the loin to open it up like a book. Cut far enough into each half of the pork loin so that it lays flat as one equal thick slab. Next, I laid thin slices of fatty pork belly over the pork. Then layered that with the following mixture (half in each piece of the loin.)
Stuffing for Porchetta
1 bulb of fresh fennel, tough stalks removed, finely minced
1 head garlic, peeled, finely minced
1 cup parsley, finely minced
3T Fennel seed
2T ground black pepper
2t coarse flaked sea salt
1t smoked red pepper flakes
2T olive oil
I then placed this pork covered with herb/spice mixture on a sheet of caul fat, rolled it up and tied up like a roast. If you have never tied a roast, there are plenty of videos on You Tube to show your how.
I placed the tied up roast in a large sealable freezer bag and refrigerated for 24 hours. Before cooking, get the pork out of the fridge and let it sit at room temperature for 2-4 hours. Place the roast in a roasting pan with the loin’s fat side up. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook slowly in a 300F convection oven. When the top of the roast gets brown and crispy, carefully turn it over to allow the other side to get crispy as well. I recommend not using a rack because the juices will dry up and may burn. Cook the pork to an internal temperature of 145F. Remove the roast pan from the oven and cover with foil to rest for 30-60 minutes.
Slice the meat and serve with some of the pan juices. This porchetta is great as a meat course in a meal or sliced in a sandwich. I’m thinking of a sandwich like a Philly roast pork sandwich with juicy sliced pork, slabs of sharp aged provolone, sautéed broccoli rabe, and long hot peppers on a steak roll.