“Porchetta-- Closed Now”
November 27, 2006
The other night, in the cold pouring rain, Diana, Steven, Katy and I met for a pre-Thanksgiving dinner at Porchetta on Smith Street. We hadn’t been able to coordinate a date in eons, and I was looking forward to sitting down together for a bottle of wine and a nice meal. Just as we had settled into one of the red banquettes lining the French doors at the front of this new restaurant, my cell phone rang. It was a number I didn’t recognize, and for some reason I decided to answer it. I don’t know why. Maybe I thought it would be a major network TV executive offering me a food anchor job, or my agent telling me the first draft of my novel was flawless, or an editor telling me they loved a recent pitch and were calling to give me a great assignment. But no, it wasn’t any of these dream calls. Bummer. It was one of my closest friends, who was calling from the hospital. She had taken a running spill at work, and fallen so hard that she had broken both her arms and her left wrist. No, I am not kidding. After I said, “Oh My God, I cannot believe this,” about a thousand times, she told me she was okay, just in some degree of pain, and that she had two friends with her to take her home, but she was calling to see if I could come and help her out the next morning since she could not really use her hands at all. I told her I would be there, of course. But I thought it was quite hilarious that my friend had organized it so that I would not have to miss my dinner. She knows I love her and all, but she also knows that that meals come first. And this one was one I would not have wanted to miss. The chef at Porchetta is Jason Neroni, someone I have long admired from his days working under Colin Alevras at the original Tasting Room, to his stint as the chef at 71 Clinton Fresh Food, where he worked until the owners shuttered it last year. If you’ve ever tried his Tasmanian sea trout tartare with pickled mustard seeds, charoli nuts, and quail egg, you know he’s got something more than talent. He’s got that added element that comes from some place deep inside of you; it’s a thing called soul.
First off, Jason is not just a chef who says he shops at the Greenmarket, he’s really there. I know this because I often run into him. Peter Hoffman is also always there, as are Wylie Dufresne, Marc Meyer, George Mendes, Marco Moreira, Colin Alevras, and Dan Barber (shopping for cauliflower no doubt). I’m sure there are more, but these are the guys I see most often. And you’ll find Jason in Chinatown too, searching out the best and most intriguing ingredients and bringing them back to the restaurant where he approaches them like pieces in a puzzle. Everything must fit together to form a compelling symphonic whole. For Neroni, this means contrasting flavors—spicy and sweet, sour and tangy. He adds texture to make sure your mouth wakes up and pays attention, and even plays with ingredients in differing temperatures. This is not a chef who’s going through the same old moves; he’s bringing in a new playbook completely.
His menu at Porchetta, a modern Italian restaurant with tin ceilings, pressed cooper walls and soft globe lighting, is not as slick and highbrow as at 71 Clinton. The style and soul are there, but he’s brought it down a notch making it more rustic and approachable—more Smith Street. But this is not to say it is no less inspired.
A perfect example of Neroni’s approach to food comes through in his smoked sunchoke soup ($9). He pours a velvety smooth, slightly spiced, beautifully smoky sunchoke puree over plump golden raisins, sharp winter chives, and salty, fat nuggets of braised pancetta, and tops it off with a cool dollop of fresh ricotta. Are you getting the effect of all these players working together? You’ve got it all in there—sweet, spicy, smoky, salty, fatty—and the contrast of hot and cold to boot. It all comes together, sort of like your ultimate fantasy football team: Peyton Manning (smoked sunchoke puree), LaDanian Tomlinson (crispy pancetta), Chad Johnson (golden raisins), Tony Gonzalez (winter chives), and the Bears’ defense (ricotta cheese). (The preceding sports information was supplied by Craig. I don’t want any of you to harbor any illusions that I know anything about football. I know nothing about it. I watch merely for its proximity to beer, and him, and not necessarily in that order.)
After the soup was cleared, a large griddle in a wooden tray arrived at the table. It was topped with four slices of warm focaccia, all bubbly with a hot cheesy layer of tallegio and homemade duck proscuitto. What a guilty pleasure—griddled bread topped with gooey cheese, and the warm glossy fat from the proscuitto melting into it. Just add a glass of red wine (which we did) and you’re all set.
But not every starter was such a touchdown. A romaine salad tossed with grapefruit segments, shaved black radish, mortadella, and ricotta salata didn’t really do it for me. The romaine was too bland as the base—chicory instead?—and the mortadella didn’t make sense to me—floppy slices of bologna on a salad? Not so much. His chicken liver mousse was nice though. It was served in a quenelle that had a terrific rustic texture and came with some stunning accessories: a pistachio crumble, some pickled wax beans, and a jammy country fig marmalade ($8).
There were no complaints about the pastas, listed under primi on the menu. Perfectly cooked orcchiette were glossed in a sunny sauce made from butternut squash and cheese pumpkin, then tossed with strips of speck and ripe lumps of gorgonzola ($10). A strong, heady dose of the sea came through in an inky Sardinian fish stew of braised cuttlefish, boquerones, and coloso olives, set up with plump gnocchi ($9). But the uovo raviolo was the hand’s-down favorite. An over-sized circle of house-made pasta draped over a poached egg and a wild mushroom conserva like a graceful slip. Slice through it, and pierce the egg so it’s yolk runs over the conserva—a seriously fine reduced stew of mushrooms, dates and olives—and you’ll be commuting to Smith Street at least once a week, if not looking into apartments nearby.
Fried pork belly ($18) was lovely—tight crisped skin over buttery bacon flesh—but it was made way too rich by an accompanying slick of melted cauliflower that was more like a creamed cauliflower butter. This was just way too sweet and overwhelmed the palate. Yes, the mustarda took it back down a notch, but I’d have gone with some savory grits with a little tooth instead. Then again, you may love it.
The balsamic poached artic char ($24) was much more balanced. It was served with a grilled caponata that was by far the best I have tasted, because he freshens it up with mint and fried capers. Neroni also serves a Heritage pork ribeye ($20), a cool cut that I have never seen before, but I’d like to see more of. Cooking pork on the bone, as with any meat, keeps it moist, and this pork was just juicy. He serves it off the bone, in slices fanned out over a robust spicy conserva he made from the summer’s last crop of heirloom tomatoes, topped with a flurry of tiny fried artichokes. On the side, we ordered some brussel sprouts, which Neroni dresses in olive oil and cooks in a hot oven until browned, and then introduces to the world’s most ideal threesome—crispy pancetta, fresh ricotta, and a poached egg. If I ever reproduce, I am considering naming my kids pancetta, ricotta and egg. Then again, maybe not. I want to try to keep therapy to a minimum.
After dinner, I headed back to Manhattan to check in on my friend, who was doing pretty well, considering she didn’t have use of either of her arms. I spent some time taking care of her Thanksgiving morning. I brushed her teeth, washed her face, and then fed her some breakfast. It’s not an easy situation. But she is handling it remarkably well, and doing what we all have to do in situations this difficult—laughing about it. As I held a glass to her mouth so she could sip some water through a straw, I described my dinner at Porchetta to her in some detail. When I was done, being a good friend and all, I wiped the drool from her chin.
Porchetta is located at 241 Smith Street, near Douglas, 718-237-9100.