Here in Ottawa we may think of “street meat” as hot dogs, but in Italy it’s all about porchetta. Often sold from a cart or a truck and in pop-up stalls at festivals and community events, porchetta is what Caffe Ventuno’s chef, Mike Nicastro, calls “the king of all roasted meats.”
The first time I tasted the real deal (i.e. porchetta that was not from the deli counter) was during my travels in Rome last year. One bite of the pork roast stuffed with fennel, rosemary, and garlic then slow-cooked-over-fire-on-a-spit — and I fell under its savoury porcine spell. Just the sight of its deeply golden crispy exterior (a blessedly common sight in the streets of Rome), was enough to (momentarily) distract me from my quest for more gelato.
Anyway, I had all but forgotten about porchetta until last week when I stumbled upon not one, but two traditional porchettas in town.
The first was at Westboro’s Piggy Market (400 Winston Ave.), where the pulled pork sandwich reigns supreme (and for good reason – it rocks). But there Chef Dave Neil was lamenting the lesser popularity of his personal favourite sandwich: house-made porchetta. He offered me a taste and it was impossible to deny: that’s some seriously tasty pork. There is one little catch. I’m not sure of the actual ratio of meat to fat on this belly-wrapped loin but it felt like 50/50 on the tongue. It’s kind of like eating thinly shaved raw bacon. And that’s not for everybody.
Wandering eastward just a few blocks into Caffé Ventuno (1355 Wellington St. W.) a blackboard announced the news: Friday night is porchetta night. Chef Nicastro recently travelled to the Lazio and Abruzzo regions of Italy and was inspired to bring the decadent panino filling to his restaurant. While he doesn’t have the benefit of a wood-fired spit (“for now,” he says), he aims to stay true to the traditional recipe. The process of making porchetta begins on Wednesdays when he rolls together pork belly, shoulder, and loin, and then seasons and brines the beast for 36 hours. The 40-50-pound roast goes in the oven on Friday mornings and roasts “low and slow” for up to six hours.
Porchetta sandwiches are now a staple on Ventuno’s lunch menu (and the meat is sold by weight at the deli counter as well) but on Friday nights, the slow cooked Italian fast food is served hot from the oven in the restaurant. It can be ordered hand carved on the plate or as sliders (little sandwiches). Last Friday I opted for the impressive ¾” slab of porchetta topped simply with a tangle of classic Roman-style sweet and sour onions. It was served with roasting jus and a side of sautéed garlic and chili-spiked rapini for $25.
Again, the flavour was phenomenal, but I found the ratio of fat to meat overwhelming. Ditto for the portion size. Next time I would order the porchetta sliders and share it family-style among a group of friends to accompany some other dishes.
Attempts to bring the spirit of Roman street food to Ottawa’s west end warms my heart, but for now it’s safe to say the pulled-pork sandwich’s position remains secure.