GOING WHOLE HOG THIS HOLIDAY THINK CARVING A BIRD IS HARD? TRY THIS ITALIAN TREAT
By LAURIE HOLLMAN
Tyce “Pete” Peterson struggled with the weight of the 175-pound pig he carried from the walk-in cooler. Thwack. The pig rolled from the man’s slightly stained apron-front to a slab of table in front of the shop.
There it lay Tuesday morning, belly up, beige and pink, slightly greasy to the touch, one ear up, one ear down, unnamed (“We leave that up to the people who buy the pigs,” the owner of the place, Jules Esposito, had said). Esposito had also said most people assume a pig is a pig. If you work with pigs long enough, you begin to see each has its own special characteristics. This one had a big snout, jowls like Richard Nixon and a small, stubby tail.
Peterson set to work.
In Esposito’s South Philadelphia corner shop, the specialty – and virtually the only product – is porchetta, the whole boneless roasted big served throughout Italy. And the busy season has just begun. No matter that most Americans pay homage today, Thanksgiving Day, to the venerable turkey. Some people just have to have pig.
From now until New Year’s Day, Esposito, his father-in-law, Pat Marano, and Peterson will be preparing pigs as Esposito’s father and his father’s father and so on have done for two or three centuries. Sometimes the men will handle as many as 25 pigs a day. Cornfed pigs from Lancaster County. On average they cost $160 and feed 55 hungry people. The small, white shop at South 10th and Mountain Streets will be open this morning and Christmas morning, and so much pork will pass through its portals that one might reasonably assume a stop here is simply part of a pig’s density, somewhere between the pigpen and hog heaven.
Later in the morning, Peterson had sliced off the pig’s feet and tossed them into boxes underneath the table. He used a small knife to crack open the pig where its ribs were connected to the spinal column. Then he started removing the layers of fat inside the belly of the pig.
Esposito, meanwhile, was working on another pig, one Peterson had already deboned and defatted. This pig, daintier in physiognomy than the first, was spread-eagle belly up on the table. Esposito sprinkled copious amounts of spices all over the pig’s innards. In Italy, he explained, every family has its own secret recipe for porchetta. This one clearly included salt, pepper, rosemary and cloves of garlic, but Esposito wouldn’t say what else.
Thirty-seven years old, he had worked in a butcher’s shop since he was 7, cleaning floors and scraping butcher blocks. The face of the boy still visits the man, mustachioed now and balding slightly. He was a meat cutter at Esposito’s on Ninth Street (the owners are his cousins) and learned to make porchetta just for friends and family. But gradually, he realized his talent could sustain an entire business, and he opened Elia and Jules Esposito seven years ago. Elia was his father, who died a decade ago.
Peterson had gotten to the point where he was removing white layers of fat between the pig’s skin and ribs and then slicing out the animal’s tongue. “You ever heard of smoked beef tongue?” he asked. “Makes a nice sandwich on rye.”
With a meat cleaver, he proceeded to hack off the bottom part of the pig’s jaw. Then, using a meat hook, he pulled back part of the pig to scrape out its ribs. Next, he dug out the “key bone” from the ham and cut out the pig’s backbone, which he said would mix excellently with collard greens or black-eyed peas. Last, he removed the pig’s shoulder blades.
The shop got as quiet as a library. Every now and then, a face would appear in the big picture window out front to watch the two men as they prepared the pigs. Sometimes, a youngster would make funny faces or oink.
Peterson, 69, prepared his first pig at 14. He came from South Carolina but said he “must have gotten Philadelphia water and couldn’t leave.” He, too, had worked at Esposito’s on Ninth Street before retiring. Jules brings him back part time when things get really hectic. Peterson has a special talent for being able to debone and defat a pig in less than half an hour. You can time him.
He can still remember years before when a pig that was about to be slaughtered eluded his grasp.
“It ran into a man’s house,” Peterson said. “He was sitting eating his breakfast, and the pig ran right through the kitchen through the back door to the yard, and I was right behind him. The man didn’t say a thing. He was speechless.”
Peterson chuckled merrily at the memory. His story had a happy ending for the butcher but a not so happy one for the pig.
Esposito was laying a stainless-steel pole, 1 ¼ inch in diameter, gently in the middle of the pig. In cooking, he said, the pole would help transfer heat to the center of the pig and be useful in lifting the pig from the pan. He used butcher string to set the pig around the steel. Then he turned the pig over on its stomach, using a propane torch to burn off the remaining hair and further sterilize its skin. The two men grabbed the steel pole and carried the pig to the walk-in cooler in the back room.
Tuesday night, the pig and nine others were cooked in a gas-fired oven 15 feet long by 13 feet wide in which the temperature reached about 500 degrees. The oven can hold up to 20 pigs, but if you know your pigs, you know how long each one needs to cook. It’s Marano’s job to watch because he lives nearby. Esposito said they’d never burned a pig – couldn’t afford to. The oven is about 90 years old and had once been used to bake bread.
Since the opening of the porchetta shop, Esposito said, demand has steadily increased. People from country clubs, restaurants, New Jersey and Delaware all crave porchetta. Most business comes through word of mouth. Esposito said he never changed his recipe: “It works. People enjoy it. You don’t fix it if it’s not broke.”
And voila, the finished products were available for viewing yesterday morning. A huge unwrapped golden pig lay on one of the tables near the stove in the back. On its forehead was a cross – “a family tradition,” Esposito said. “I can’t tell you what’s behind it. We’ve just always done it.” The pig’s skin was golden brown and crispy hard, its mouth empty.
What to put in that mouth would be the buyer’s decision. Apples are a popular choice. Unless, of course, someone happened to favor a tad more decoration.
“Sunglasses, cigars, hats. Believe me, I’ve seen it all,” Esposito said. “One time, I saw a fire company go out with this on their fire engine. You see all sorts of crazy things.”
No one bade farewell to the Thanksgiving-time pig. As it was being
carried out of the shop on a rock maple cutting board and loaded onto
a truck, Esposito watched with aplomb. “We have a pretty informal
relationship,” he said. “They come, and they go.”