Friday, February 20, 2009

Have You Seen the Little Piggies...?

Pigging out, pork-barrel, hog-wild-- why is something so delicious the signifier of the gluttonous? And is it possible to have too much pork?

Last week, my Omnivore and I set out to answer these and other questions at the Whole Hog Dinner 2009, cooked up by Oliveto. It was a gift of Mr. and Ms. Art Attack, which is ironic in that Ms. Art Attack is a vegetarian. But she knew we'd love the idea, one of the regular special dinners on offer at Oakland's Oliveto Cafe and Restaurant.

The Whole Hog Dinner is, as you might imagine, a soup-to-nuts pig themed menu, and I must admit, I was surprised and rather delighted by the range of dishes they had on offer.

I remember as a kid reading with great interest in Little House in the Big Woods how the Ingalls family slaughtered their one pig. Here's what I have learned from this experience: 1) a single humble pig could feed a family of four, 2) you're not supposed to eat the whole pig on one night.

Le Menu:

Our server was nice, but seemed not to be into our usual style of banter. I guess if all you've been dealing with is pork-crazy folks all night asking you how the spezzatino is prepared, you're not so keen on banter. He recommended two dishes from each category, antipasti, pastas, entrees and maybe a side, to split between the three of us. Ms. Art Attack, of course, being vegetarian had her own menu.

So pictured above is the salumi platter of sweet meats, consisting of mortadella (at the top, light, sweet and possibly my fave among the meats), pate cappriccioso (the wedge to the right of the mortadella), pork liver pate (the wedge below drizzled with maybe a balsamic? A fantastic, fantastic, savory-sweet pate, really, one of the best I've ever had), salame cotto (continuing clockwise around the plate), and a fine coppa di testa (or head cheese). We had to do salumi, because Oliveto is where Paul Bertolli started his handcrafted salumi revolution before founding Fra'Mani, which is ONLY our favorite salumi in all the--well, really all the world. Honestly. And yes, I'm including the salumi we had in Tuscany.

We also had the Sbricciolona, a quenelle of raw sausage and fennel (don't start with me, we ate raw, whipped lard slathered on bread in Tuscany) with terrific little squares of flatbread and an arugula salad on the side. Fresh salsiccia cruda is really flavorful. I guess in one sense it makes me feel like a feral animal, gnawing away at raw flesh, but it also oddly reminds me of being a small child and going to a butcher shop. As the adults consulted over the meats, the butcher would always give me a little bite of raw ground beef as a treat. I miss that.

We also tried the pork tongue with artichokes in a balsamic sauce.

I'm not the biggest fan of tongue, although this was very good. I never get "big" flavor from it, but Oliveto certainly knows how to cook it for perfect texture.

Ms. Art Attack, showing off her mixed green salad. LOL

Paccheroni with wild boar spezzatino was probably my favorite pasta of the night. The paccheroni are long hollow noodles which was interesting to me -- it didn't seem like the ragu would be carried well on the pasta, but it coated the outside of the pasta appealingly, and the boar tasted not so gamey, but actually very tender.

We also got a papparedelle nero with pork heart and wild mushroom ragu. Nose-to-tail -- eat everything and waste nothing on the animal...

I actually really loved the pastas, all homemade I'm presuming, because the texture on all of them was really silky and lovely.

Our wines for the evening: Barbera del Monferrato and Montefalco Sagrantino. Italian wines are not my strong point, but I will say this, they are smashing with food.

I'll leave the describing to my Omnivore, our resident wine expert.

Ms. Art Attack's other salad, with a fabulous dressing.

Throughout the evening, I must interject here, I was trying very very hard to pace myself. Don't get me wrong -- I enjoyed everything. I had little bites of all the dishes, certainly plenty to taste -- but at this point, I was starting to get that full feeling...Seriously? I've had like a bite of pate, a slice of mortadella, a bit of cotto and head cheese, a half bite of a heart, a long paccheroni, a smidge of salsiccia -- I'm really not eating that much, but my brain is going. "Wow, great dinner...and that's a wrap..." Except that we're, like, halfway through.

I did get to try Ms. Art Attack's absolutely toothsome gnocchi, made mostly with greens, I heard nettles and a lttle binder of flour and I've forgotten the rest... So good. Possible candidate for our pasta tasting menu later this spring...?

Ms. Art Attack also got the shaved Bussel Sprouts drenched in lemon and pecorino. I have to remember this litttle trick , because I love brussels and they tasted less cruciferous, and more savory this way.

I guess our server must have felt a little sorry for Ms. Art, because he brought along a little plate of Oliveto's fresh-milled polenta for her to try -- much softer and creamier in texture than polenta made with the typical store-bought dried milled corn.

Okay, so here we get to the part where I began drowning. The Zampone Braised in Saba Sauce.

We saw it go by to another table and--well, first, let me say, it looked a lot, a LOT smaller-- but it also looked succulent and irresistible. This is a pig foreleg, with the bone taken out and replaced with ground meat. It says on the menu "to share" and they ain't kidding. It's absolutely delicious and unusual -- the flavor of the saba sauce has a terrific spiciness, almost like clove and cinnamon on a Christmas roast. I scooped out a slice which was about the same size as a quarter-pounder burger and then considered it on my plate. It might as well have been a horse.

The whole dish is incredibly rich, partly from the fat, partly from the well-developed flavor, and about two bites in, I knew I'd be forcing myself to eat, so I had to put my fork down. There was still bacon ice cream yet to come, I reminded myself. I took a few bites of the shaved fennel and puntarella, just to clear my mind and it actually helped refresh me quite a bit-- one of the pleasant mysteries of eating that I often wonder about, the relationship between flavor on your palate and that feeling of "fullness."

Anyhoo. yeah, we took a lot of that home. A LOT.

I digress. Bacon ice cream and Seville orange ice cream. Sounds weird, I know, but is really spectacularly good -- smoky and sweet, with a creamy finish, of course.

And as a little extra, since we were celebrating My Omnivore's birthday, albeit a little early, the server brought the little plate of candied bacon that is at the top of this post, with a candle in it. Maybe he was trying to get back in my good graces after blowing off the banter.

At this point, since the fennel worked so well, I was all about the palate-cleansing. Rosemary sorbet, bring it on. Actually beautifully fragrant, and not too resinous, but definitely woodsy.

Okay, my good man, I believe we're ready. Be a sport and bring my wheelbarrow around and help me get in it?

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