Sudbury Porketta Is A Canadian Spin On An Italian Classic Comfort Food

In Greater Sudbury, one of the biggest small towns in northern Ontario, porchetta has taken on a life of its own. Here, it's spelled porketta, and while it's close to what you might know, it's just different enough to make you wonder why you've been wasting your time on everything else before this. A city built first on lumber but finally finding its footing with mining, Sudbury has seen wave after wave of international citizens, each leaving an indelible mark on the rocky landscape. No longer considered as much of a blue-collar town, there are now scores of restaurants and markets that showcase just how many cultures call this place home. But this dill and garlic-imbued pork dish still remains one of our most beloved dishes.

Porketta is one of Sudbury's most iconic foods — the kind of thing you dream about when you're away at university. Or one of the things that you pile into a cooler when you're home for summer vacation, at least enough of it to keep you going until Christmas. If you're visiting from out of town, there's a good chance that your host will take you to porketta bingo as a way to show off Sudbury (along with the Big Nickel and the statue of Stompin' Tom). Or, even better, you'll get invited to a backyard barbeque where someone is smoking a huge piece of the pork that we're known for. Well-known enough that YouTube is full of people (mostly young men with enormous appetites) traveling here just to document themselves sampling as much of it as they can. 

How Northern Ontario became a porketta hot spot

It wasn't until a handful of the Italian population found their way here that this city truly became obsessed with a twist on a dish served throughout Italy. This version has roots in the central region of the country — specifically Lazio, Abruzzo, and Umbria. Once arriving here, Italian cooks had to make do with the ingredients available to them, making adjustments as they went. Beginning in the 1940s, much of the Italian population started settling in two different places in town, near the nickel mine that had attracted them. These two spots, Copper Cliff and Gatchell (both are still known as Little Italy), are your best bets for finding some of the city's top porketta. The South End has also started dishing up some seriously good stuff, too. 

When you get plenty of Italians together in one neighborhood, you can be sure that the food culture will be vibrant and collaborative. Wine, sausage, sugo al pomodoro, and cured meat for sure, but here, they also managed to make their interpretation of porchetta a city-wide phenomenon. Like back home, there are variations that exist here, too — but they never stray far from each other. In Italy, porchetta is made and sold mainly as a "street food", much like it is here. If you're looking for a formal dining experience that involves a slab of peppery, dill-packed pork, you'll be hard-pressed to find it. It was, and still is, considered to be a food made to be served in a casual environment, preferably shared with friends and a cold beer.

Porketta relies on dill, rather than fennel

There are only a couple of differences between our version and the porchetta served nearly everywhere else. We usually forego fennel and load this meaty delight with dill instead. And when we say dill, we really mean it — dill weed, seed, and often the stalks. And recently, a handful of local versions have started including dill pollen and I've added it to my own recipe (if you're a dill lover, it's out of this world good). The more dill, the better might just be our mantra here. There are a few chefs in town that resolutely use fennel (and fennel pollen) in homage to their family's original Umbrian recipe. While the two herbs are actually pretty close in looks, the real difference between them is, obviously, the taste. Both bring a lovely freshness to anything it's added to, but the licorice taste of fennel can be a hard sell for some people.

It's possible that the Sudbury version relies so heavily on dill (aside from the fantastic taste) because it's just so easy to grow in our climate. Gardeners up here have to deal with long, cold winters and short, hot summers. Dill and garlic do exceptionally well, so that's what gets used. Along with dill, we go with salt, pepper, lots of garlic, and — I've heard it whispered — caraway. Researching the basic recipe used here, any butcher I spoke to flat-out denied using it, but we all need our secret ingredient, right? Anise-flavored and slightly bittersweet caraway truly works brilliantly with dill, so it just makes sense.

Sudbury's version is made from pork shoulder

The other major difference with our version is that Sudbury porketta is nearly always made from pork shoulder (or butt), which comes slightly higher up on the front leg). Pork butt has a thicker layer of fat which transforms into that lovely, greasy-yet-crispy covering that everyone loves. The original Italian version comes in quite a few different iterations, including shoulder and butt, as well as pork loin rolled with pancetta, rolled pork belly, to an entire pig with all the bones and innards removed, stuffed, tied, and roasted. You might find a few outliers here that go with pork belly, another cut that will also give you some crispy skin and juicy meat — and I don't begrudge that choice at all.

If you're looking to try whipping up your own homemade porchetta, we happen to have one that uses a pork shoulder, which also makes a terrific sandwich. This recipe can also be easily adapted to make the version close to Sudbury's heart. Just ditch the fennel and rosemary for all the dill you can get your mitts on, and maybe up the amount of garlic. You can try it with pork loin if you're looking to reduce the fattiness, but I wouldn't suggest it. Fattiness is part of porketta's charm — it's just not the same without it, and it's one of the reasons we're always so keen to share it. If you're concerned about fat, you're definitely in the wrong place.

Secret recipes and stiff competition

The research for this piece was pretty easy — ask around and see what people thought made the best version. Trying to come up with a definitive answer, however, was next to impossible. Among my Italian friends, this question created an enormous debate that almost rendered one dinner party over before the apps were warmed up. Everyone has very strong opinions based on what region of Italy their family hails from and which butcher shop they've got an allegiance with. These two things are inextricably entwined, too. The butcher shop you go to is the one your nonna used, and if you stray? Well, just keep it to yourself, is the advice I heard. As for those who make it themselves, the opinions were just as varied. I prefer something with a decent layer of fat on top, while others trim away all that crispy preciousness. What everyone agreed on, however, was the fact that pork loin should never be used. While it shows up in lots of mouth-watering iterations in Italy, it's not what we're looking for here. Honestly — calling a Montreal Steak Spice-covered pork loin a porketta will get you run out of town. I've seen it happen.

During this heated discussion, I did pick up a few interesting tidbits about the variations that everyone prefers. Some butchers still go old-school and include a filling of liver or prosciutto, while some, like Copper Cliff's Italian Club, frown on anything that strays from the original, dill-packed, Sudbury recipe. Asking around, I also found out that some of the most highly regarded pork roasts in town are made by butchers that still grow their own dill and occasionally garlic, too, like the superb offering at D&A Fine Meats.

Porketta Bingo is a pretty big deal, too

If you're just looking for a taste of this delish phenomenon, a few cold beers, and maybe a way to easily donate to charity, we have that covered, too. Seriously — there's a whole culture up here that revolves around those three delightful things occurring in bars and restaurants most weekends. It's how many of the locals spend their Sunday afternoons. It might be hard to believe but, in Greater Sudbury at least; bingo doesn't mean anything unless the prize is a steaming hot basket of freshly-sliced, deeply-spiced pork butt. The prizes range from local gift cards to a hot porketta sandwich served right there or even (if you're really lucky) a full-size porketta to enjoy at home. Depending on where you go, the roast is made on-site, while other places order from a nearby butcher. Either way, it's fresh and hot, significantly increasing the venue's enjoyable aroma.

A note of caution, however — because this town takes porketta so seriously, you better come prepared. Show up early to get a seat (count on three hours on average), pay attention (locals will definitely make fun of you if you call bingo preemptively), and get ready for a noisy, rollicking afternoon. Unlike regular bingo, you'll use laminated strips of three playing cards and whatever marker you like — as this is a pub game, beer caps make a perfect marker, but you'll notice the regulars bring their own "lucky" charms. All you have to do is match a set of three cards with the ones the dealer calls, and you'll soon be stuffing your face with a warm, peppery porketta sandwich.

It's easy to find, fortunately

If your luck doesn't pan out during all those rounds of porketta bingo, it's still easy to find. Most butcher shops carry it, although it still needs to be decided as to which place makes the best one. Try them all and find out, I guess? A premade roast allows you to simply pop it in the oven and enjoy it for dinner without all the fuss of chopping dill and garlic all afternoon. And then you'll have loads of leftovers for the best part — the porketta sandwich. You can go Sudbury-style, which really isn't much more than mustard, or maybe roasted red peppers and some cheese. But I also encourage you to try it with broccoli rabe and provolone, a combo seen in Italy, and in this amazing recipe for the delish Philadephia roast pork sandwich. Add a squeeze of mayo, and it's my favorite way to enjoy it.

When you're not in the mood to do the cooking yourself, there were, at last count, at least 11 spots offering their own version of the porketta sandwich. It's interesting to note that in a city like Greater Sudbury, where there are festivals to celebrate nearly every kind of food possible, from blueberries to garlic to poutine, there's still no porketta-fest. The Italian Festival, put on by the Caruso Club, does its best (they are, after all, one of the city's leading porketta purveyors), but the festival includes more than just the delicacy we're after. Even so, it's so popular here that it's available all over and in enough iterations (like the porketta poutine offered at Vespa Street Kitchen) for anyone to enjoy.