Under his chef's apron, Sean Kelly wears a T-shirt that reads "Porchetta ’Bout It," with an accompanying cartoon of a pig happily serving a plate of steaming pork. Beneath the humor, Kelly is serious about porchetta, an often misunderstood Italian specialty that's one of the stars on the menu at SK Provisions, the chef's counter-service eatery inside RiNo's Denver Central Market.
Even after two and a half years of serving porchetta at the market, Kelly — whose résumé includes serving as opening chef at Barolo Grill in 1992, then opening his own restaurants Claire de Lune and Aubergine — says he occasionally has customers return their platter or sandwich, complaining that the meat is too rich or fatty. And in fact, porchetta is rich and fatty: An entire pork belly is stuffed with more meat before it's rolled and slow-roasted until the exterior is golden and crackly. Porchetta is meat for meat lovers — a spiral of unctuous layers of pork and fat cooked on a rotisserie so that the juices and seasonings penetrate every bite. If you think adding bacon to a cheeseburger is as decadent as it gets, you haven't sunk your teeth into one of Kelly's East Coast porchetta sandwiches.
In Italy, porchetta — like many other rustic dishes — evolved as a w ay to use every part of the animal and to extend more expensive cuts of meat to serve big groups of people. Pork loin is a more valuable cut of the pig since its meat is lean and mild; the loin and belly are usually separated by the butcher and used for completely different purposes. But for porchetta, Italians leave the loin attached to the belly (it's at the top of the cut, above the ribs, which are also removed), wrapping the thinner, fattier belly around the lean meat to keep it moist as it cooks. Often, liver and other organ meats are rolled in as well — an economical practice that also creates layers of flavor.
In the U.S., the loin is generally sold by itself, so it's not common, even for restaurants, to purchase pork belly with the loin still attached. Kelly experimented with purchasing the two cuts separately and rolling them together, but he wasn't satisfied with the finished product; the loin at the center of the roll came out too dry after the lengthy cooking process. So he turned to pork collar, a larger, more marbled cut from the top of the neck. The collar provided a thicker cross-section of muscle and a little more fat, keeping the entire porchetta juicy all the way through.
SK Provisions goes through an entire porchetta almost every day, so the kitchen makes two at a time every couple of days. The skinless belly comes in at about ten pounds and the collar nearly doubles that weight, so the roll weighs in at close to twenty pounds before it's cooked. Kelly starts by making shallow scores in both sides of the belly and then slathers the inner side with a slurry of garlic, herbs, salt and lard. Adding more pork fat may seem like overkill, but it serves a purpose. "Most of the lard drips out while it's cooking, so all the flavor is left behind without the fat," Kelly explains.
Next, the cylindrical cuts of collar are laid end to end on the center of the belly; they get a massage with the seasoning slurry, too. Then the entire belly is wrapped around the collars and trussed tightly with butcher's twine. The trussing must be done neatly and precisely so that the long roll of meat doesn't warp or curl during cooking.
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Once seasoned and tied, the porchetta rests for 12 to 24 hours in the refrigerator, after which it is loaded onto a skewer and roasted in the eatery's rotisserie oven for three hours. Flames dance around the meat during the process, adding even more flavor. Once cooked, the roll is chilled and cut on a meat slicer; each slice is finished on the griddle for sandwiches and platters.
One porchetta yields enough meat for about forty sandwiches, Kelly says. He serves three kinds at the market: The Roman, a simple construction of porchetta, olive oil and cracklings (for added crunch) on ciabatta, mirrors sandwiches found on the streets of Rome; the West Coast comes loaded with caramelized onion, arugula and herbed mustard; and the East Coast, with ricotta, cherry peppers and broccoli rabe, is the sandwich that Kelly grew up eating in New Jersey.
Before you eschew the fat, give porchetta a go at SK Provisions, in the back corner of Denver Central Market at 2669 Larimer Street. The counter offers lunch and dinner from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily (and until 10 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays); SK Provisions also does catering, so you can order porchetta by the pound for your own party. Visit denvercentralmarket.com for more details. And if you're at Denver International Airport, stop by the mini-version of Denver Central Market in Concourse A and grab another SK Provisions specialty: rotisserie chicken.