"We get two pigs' heads a week. We've had a standing order with Heritage Pork for 15 years," Josh Laurano, executive chef at Lupa, says, as he lifts one from a giant pot filled with aromatics.
Yes, Lupa opened way back in 1999, the year when Y2K loomed large, Britney Spears was still presumably innocent and Brad Pitt taught us the rules of Fight Club (oops, broke one). It was, and still is, Mario Batali's ode to a Roman trattoria, although now there's also an outpost in Hong Kong. In present day, you can still get a good plate of bucatini tossed in spicy all'Amatriciana ($16), although suffice it to say the clientele may have changed a bit (less first-wave Internet-boom hipsters, more tourists who ask lots and lots of specific questions about the menu).
"We still try to channel Roman ideology as much as we can," Laurano says. "Half of the pasta menu is the same as day one."
Perhaps even more a reason to visit than the pasta is the restaurant's house-made charcuterie—which makes sense, considering Lupa was one of the trendsetters in the whole "make your own cured meat" craze, well before everyone in Brooklyn was doing it. Today, these are three incredibly flavorful options ($10 each) made from pig parts and salty bits: testa (less romantically known as "head cheese"), coppa cotta (cooked salami) and lingua (that would be tongue).
Brined pig's head | Chef Josh Laurano making head cheese
Laurano invited us back into the kitchen to show us how each is made. Because of NYC Health Department regulations too complicated to explain in this story, all of Lupa's homemade charcuterie is cooked, not simply cured.
Perhaps most fascinating is the testa: Those gloriously cartoonish pig's heads we mentioned earlier are brined for three weeks, then cooked overnight, low and slow, with mirepoix and a sachet filled with cloves, cinnamon and fennel seeds. Everything but the eyes and part of the mouth are then picked through and broken up slightly ("You want all that fat, and the skin is totally tender at this point," Laurano explains), dusted with fennel pollen, then pressed into a bain-marie to set.
Coppa Cotta | Lingua
When it's served, slightly warm, the testa is sliced super thin and sprinkled with just a touch more fennel pollen. It's surprisingly silky, without even a touch of chewiness, and the fennel pollen acts as a brightening agent against the pockets of fat interspersed throughout each slice.
The coppa cotta, meanwhile, is made from one muscle drawn from a boneless pork shoulder that's brined for three weeks, seasoned heavily with cayenne, black pepper, salt and fennel seed, stuffed into a beef casing and gently poached. Those peppery flavors shine through in each slice.
And the cow's tongue, Laurano's favorite, is cooked in a sweet-sour agrodolce every Saturday morning. It, too, has been brined for a few weeks beforehand. Cooling it in the agrodolce infuses each piece with that slightly tart flavor, and a douse of orange-infused olive oil and chunks of raw Vidalia onions enliven the slick slices of tongue.
Go there soon, and you may spot us pigging out on a plate of all three and a glass of wine at the still-bustling marble bar.
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