April 27-May 3, 2006
Eats : FoodWhole Hog
It's delicious. But it looks like a baby.
: Manuel Dominguez Jr
Slow-roasted piglets are customary holiday fare across a wide swath of Europe and also feature in Chinese and Filipino cuisine. It's not exactly a Mexican standard. When North Americans go whole hog, it tends to be with full-grown animals. If you ever get an invitation to a Carolina pig-pickin', expect to join scores of people crowded around a huge beast that's been buried in coals since before dawn. But suckling pigs are a completely different meal. Simply put, they're babies, and they taste that way. Their underdeveloped muscles make for meat that's tender but not flabby, yet isn't quite as fatty as pulled pork.
My surprise over finding a burrito joint that turns out little piggies was countered by another: The kitchen cooks them Italian-style. A couple days after I hastily arranged an eventPico de Gallo requires 48 hours noticeI came by the restaurant to acquaint myself with my dinner. The little creature was from New Jersey, and judging from its 25-pound size, its life had lasted no more than 6 weeks. Piglets generally wean at three weeks, so this one had been fed more than just its mother's milk. But not much more. Its pale pink skin, which had been perforated with slits and stuffed with garlic and rosemary, hung loosely around a body frail enough to make me feel a little naughty. It lay in a pool of red wine vinegar and dry white wine, salted and peppered, its eyes milky and its mouth just big enough to accommodate half of a small red apple.
Six hours later, it became the main course for eight people at the end of a sunny spring day. Presentation turned out to be a slightly thorny issue. The visual effect of a whole piglet on a small platter serves to remind everyone that something not far removed from infanticide has taken place. One got the sense that the photographer was not thrilled with this assignment. Pico de Gallo will also carve the meat for you, which is an option worth considering as long as you'll be eating right away. Then again, your PETA friends will probably have dissolved their association with you upon receiving the invitation, so it's a little late to start worrying.
It's never too late to discover the pleasures of actually eating a roast suckling pig. Opinion was unanimous among the diners that the flesh was delicious. It was also varied. The hind quarters offered the leanest, pinkest meat. Darker meat clung to ribs as thin as pencils and half as long. Or perhaps clung is the wrong word; the succulent flesh fell off the bone at the slightest touch. Different parts of the body yielded diverse textures and tastes. The cheek in particular boasted a flavor far more delicate and nuanced than devotees of pork tenderloin are accustomed to. A couple of eaters observed that the experience was more akin to eating roast duck than mature swine. The only thing found lacking was the skin, which tasted good but should have been crispier. The goal of slow-roasting a suckling pig is to melt the layer of fat beneath the skin so that it conditions the meat as it cooks. Done perfectly, the process leaves the skin almost flaky. Ours was too chewy. Perhaps another hour in the oven would have been wise.
Pico do Gallo includes black beans and fried plantains in the price ($160, tax included), which assured that there was enough food for several people to claim seconds. The beans were the more successful side dish. It's hard to complain about plantainsand these were tastybut they didn't quite jive with the Italian recipe. Roasted potatoes would have fit the bill better.
As for the actual bill, $20 per person is reasonable for a midsized spring dinner party --as long as you realize you're spending the money not for starched-tablecloth fanciness but a down-home rarity. Even an uncooked animal this size runs $129 from an Internet retailer. In other words, baby pigs carry a premium. After all, if you give them the chance, they grow up.
Pico de Gallo, 1501 South St., 215-772-1119.