A little slice of pork heaven
ITHACA, N.Y. - A cyclist pauses mid-ride for a snack at a freestanding yellow building marked with the cartoon face of a pig. “Are the carnitas pork?’’ asks local resident Marc Rockmore, still wearing his bike helmet inside the Piggery Deli. “Pretty much everything here is pork,’’ answers his server.
The deli is a front for the Piggery farm in nearby Trumansburg, where Brad Marshall and Heather Sandford, who are married and both 36, have been raising heirloom breeds of pigs for charcuterie since 2007. They began by making rillettes and sausage from their herd and later added fresh cuts of meat, a rarity for a small farm, which they sold at the Ithaca farmers’ market and through Community Supported Agriculture. Their deeply flavorful and attractively marbled pork gained quite a following, and last November the couple opened the deli, which is part butcher shop and part restaurant. Such items as Boston butt and lemongrass-ginger sausage are sold to be cooked at home, and full meals featuring Piggery products are served on the spot. There is even a drive-through window, making this perhaps the only place in the country where you can order charcuterie made from locally raised heirloom pigs without unbuckling your seat belt.
“Can I get two carnitas burritos with an iced chai and a shot of espresso?’’ blares the drive-through loudspeaker. The food is primarily a vehicle for the farm’s stupendous pork, though a full and competent coffee bar is also on the premises. The deli is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner and does a brisk trade in sandwiches, burritos, and tacos. Those products that do not contain meat are largely sourced from other local businesses, such as baked goods from Fat Boy Bakery and Blue Wave Pastry and soda from the Ithaca Beer Co. Produce hails from area farms when possible, including the black beans in the burritos and the poblanos in the chili sauce (which are blackened in the pig roaster when it happens to be vacant). When local is not an option, the owners still purchase organic.
The words rich and juicy describe nearly every dish on the menu. Pulled pork sandwiches and sliders are delicately flavored with a hint of smoke and a touch of maple syrup and vinegar. The mortadella sandwich is confoundingly supple, and a steal at $4.25. Carnitas, a Mexican-style mixture of moist, braised bits of pork, fill the burritos and tacos. The deli almost under-seasons its food, letting the pork speak for itself. The meat has its own complexity; the only drawback is that it trumps everything else. If all the ingredients were on par with the pork, the sky would be the limit, because here pigs do fly.
The contents of the deli case vary with availability, and on a recent weekend included tenderloin, country style spare ribs, scrapple, jowl confit, baking lard, chops, ham, smoked hocks, bacon ends, mousse pate, smoked bones, and head cheese made with pickled tongues and hearts. “We keep our things kind of basic because we have to stay in business and sell some things to the general public. But we like to fly our freak flag sometimes,’’ says Sandford.
In the early days, both the butcher and the restaurant staff worked from a single counter in a small room packed with hungry customers who dined outside on patio furniture. In August, the Piggery expanded into an adjacent space, larger and with ample indoor seating. The new room is warm, casual, and full of natural light, with wood floors and counter tops, black diner-style stools, and the occasional sheet of corrugated metal.
Sandford and Marshall believe their success is due to their work on the farm. Each of their pigs is at least one-quarter Mulefoot, a rare American pig with an uncloven hoof that probably descended from Spanish pata negra hogs brought here in the 1500s. They feed on open pasture containing clover, oats, and acorns, and so-called weeds such as dandelions, thistles, and dock, which pigs relish. Their grazing is supplemented with whey from local cheese makers and some grain, including triticale, a cross between wheat and rye. It’s a wonder they get so plump from such a healthy diet.
Gazing at a slice of Piggery ham makes one realize just how monotonous the commercially available equivalent can be. The ham is a landscape of rosy flesh and bright, white fat, the precise shape and color varying with each piece. It is clear from both the appearance and the taste that this is true food, raised and crafted by hand. It would be foolish not to take some for the road.
The Piggery Deli423 Franklin St., Ithaca, N.Y., 607-272-2276, www.thepiggery.net.
Aaron Kagan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.