I grew up on meat. We were the type of family who lived off of a roast for days. Hams lasted a good week. Our meals were composed around a carnivore's centerpiece. Rice and potatoes were a given and vegetables were of the frozen variety. My mom is a fabulous cook, her true skill somewhat hampered by the thrifty nature of one raised in an extremely efficient, depression era home.
I hated vegetables growing up. The multi-colored medley cooked in a microwave plastic container, with a tab of margarine, made me gag. I couldn't do it. The iceberg lettuce salads, weren't bad, and I lived for those nights, when as a treat, we added a little blue cheese.
But, I loved my mother's amazing meats. She was passionate about a rare cut, seared quickly on the outside and cool on the inside. When making burgers, we always tested the raw blend to make sure it was seasoned perfectly. That uncooked, iron flavor is one of my favorite early culinary memories. Having lived in Turkey for two years, my mom perfected the art of cooking lamb; I loved chewing her crispy seared chops right from the bone almost as much as dining on her seasoned, butterflied, grilled leg of lamb.
I have gone back and forth in my life, celebrating the joy of meat and, for periods of time, abstaining or reducing my intake. I have come to love vegetables. My weekly CSA deliver from Yokna Bottoms Farm brings me mystery and exquisite joy. I often choose my restaurant meals based on the vegetable sides, but at the end of the day, there is nothing more satisfying to me than a juicy rare cut of meat.
For that reason, I have been in deep anticipation over the opening of Porcellino's Craft Butcher in Memphis. The third restaurant in the Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman empire, Porcellino's, is a butcher shop cum bistro/bar led by head butcher, Aaron Winters. Small french style marble tables sit atop a tiled floor, surrounded by refrigerators of meats, ice creams, and pastas. At one end of the restaurant is a cozy bar, while the opposite hosts the butcher case. In between is a window into the kitchen overlooking a prep table for fresh pasta and pastry making.
While you may buy any number of high-quality looking cuts from stuffed pork loin to lamb, rib-eyes to hearts and pig ears, we were sadly without a cooler and therefore were there to try out their lunch menu.
Immediately, I knew we had a problem. Every sandwich was calling to me. I did not have a decisive bone in my body. We managed to narrow it down to the "Goomba", an Italian cold-cut sandwich served on soft white bread. More refined than the Italian sub I grew up loving in Boston, it easily could have been homemade, right from Mark's family kitchen. The bread was spread with deeply flavorful olive salad and topped with cool shredded lettuce and just the right amount of sopressata, porchetta, and "gabagool". Unlike the subs of my youth, the bread and meats were not competing, but complementing each other.
The very attentive waiter helped us choose our second sandwich, suggesting a hot lamb and pork sausage on a light hoagie. The sausage was everything he promised. Rich and juicy, the meat was blended with parmesan cheese and fresh herbs. Pickled red onions and a cool cucumber raita spread on the soft roll balanced the deep flavors.
So as not to forget our other food groups, we selected a side of sauteed summer squash bathed in a basil pesto on a tomato jam sauce with crushed peanuts, that could easily have taken center stage. Throughout our experience, I saw other plates returning to the kitchen with small crusts remaining, and had this horrified gut reaction - I guess as the granddaughter of a depression era home, I have trouble not cleaning my plate. I remember sitting for hours as a child over those terrible, waxen vegetables, wishing I could be excused from the table. Today I could not help but view those crusts as perfect vessels for mopping up the remaining tomato jam.
There is something old world and authentic about Porcellino's. I could easily be on Federal Hill in Providence, Rhode Island, surrounded by old Italian speaking men, escaping their houses to tell the same stories over and over to their buddies who laugh with gusto every time. It is rare that you can even find a neighborhood butcher these days. And yet, here in this little corner of Memphis, off of the busy Poplar Avenue, sits a very modern, hip throwback. Next time, I will bring the cooler.