With its black-and-white honeycomb tile and quaint vintage tableware, Porcellino's — the new restaurant from chefs Michael Hudman and Andy Ticer — strikes an appealingly casual note, one that is matched by its affordable menu.
Porcellino's is essentially two shops. In the front, there's an espresso-centric, European-style café where you can order pastries for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and small plates for supper. In the back, there's a craft butcher shop that features traditional steaks, sausages, and cured meats — plus some truly exotic cuts.
I began with a double shot of espresso — which, for me, is kind of a big deal. I'm pathologically sensitive to caffeine, so I usually draw the line at a single cup of green tea in the morning.
It was worth making the exception. The espresso — a Metropolis Redline blend — was like an awakening. It had a thick, creamy body and a beautiful crema, with notes of honey and lavender in the finish. Pair it with a couple of Bomboloni ($2) — fluffy Italian donuts — and you're ready to take on the world.
"I want our coffee to be a craft experience," says head barista Destiny Naccarato. "And that means eliminating guesswork. It means timing everything out, measuring it, weighing it.
"I actually think the first sip should be a little shocking," she adds.
On to small plates. When building their menu, chefs Hudman and Ticer say they were inspired by their friend the late Mark Newman of Newman Farm. The word "porcellino" means "baby pig" in Italian, and many dishes were created to showcase the farm's heritage pork and lamb.
"We kept asking ourselves," says Ticer, "why do we have to go to New Orleans to get boudin? Why do we have to go to St. Louis to get decent cured meat? We can do those things at least as well as anybody else. Hell, we can do them better."
One of my favorite dishes was the Collard Green Dumplings ($9). Loaded with collards from Woodson Ridge Farms, spicy nduya sausage, Calabrian chili oil, and Newman Farm pork belly, these demure little rice paper packets pack a punch. But if you can stand the heat, they'll reward you. Drizzled with benne oil — an aromatic, nutty oil derived from an heirloom ancestor of the sesame seed — they are interestingly tangy and peppery.
For those seeking something less spicy, I recommend the Ash Flour Pita — stippled with melted cheese and marinated olives — or the New Orleans-style boudin, served with pickled onions over corn bread porridge.
But Porcellino's is first and foremost a butcher shop, so I decided to take a tour with head butcher Aaron Winters.
"You remember how, in The Brady Bunch, they had Sam the Butcher?" asks Winters. "That's what I want. I want people to say, 'Aaron's my butcher.' I want to start the conversation again."
Naturally, the conversation will include things like tenderloin and pork chops. But part of Winters' mission at Porcellino's is to introduce Memphians to more uncommon cuts of meat. Things like bavette — a strip of beef loin that runs along the ribcage — and spider steak — named for its web-like pattern of marbling.
"In America," Winters says, "most of these cuts get ground up for hamburger, so we never even see them. Which is a shame, because they are some of the tastiest parts of the whole animal."
To learn about bavette and spider steak, Winters spent the summer in Italy. There he studied with Dario Cecchini, the world's foremost master butcher, and Filippo Gambassi, scion of an ancient Italian salumi dynasty.
It probably goes without saying, but Winters is the only person within 300 miles of Memphis with that kind of training. Why don't you pay him a visit and let him recommend something?