I see the words in every panini shop and street stand in Rome. "PORCHETTA DI ARICCIA." The first word I’m familiar with.
The traditional whole pig, deboned and rolled tight with fat and a spiral of herbs, boasting cracker shards of skin that are crunchy enough to shatter but hold onto a little gluiness that sticks to your teeth as you chew. Its served on pizza bianca—salty textured pizza bread—or plain rolls or most traditionally a white peasant style bread. Shop owners will smear a whole lick of condiments on them for you, pestos or stracchino or caponatas, but at its finest, it's eaten plain.
The second word ARICCIA not so much. Where was this place? Why was everyone in Rome getting their porchetta from there?
My being curious has mostly been a good thing. Often times it has taken me down the lesser traveled road and brought me face to face with people or places or dishes or stories I never would have otherwise encountered. My adventure to the heart of porchetta territory being one of them.
Sometimes in haste and swirly excitement, we do silly things. We hop on trains and subways and trams without looking at return times. We don’t do thorough research intentionally, hoping to "discover the way for ourself."
I took a walk, to a tram, to a train, to another train to reach Cancelliera, the train station in Ariccia. Or what I presumed was the center of Ariccia. I expected to walk out and be greeted by wafting smells of melting pork fat and roasted rosemary. I thought I’d see little stands and shops everywhere, with people eager to sell me their porchettas, to let me taste what this whole porchetta di Ariccia business was all about.
Ariccia is a larger commune than I thought, and I walked out of a train onto an industrial highway type street. There was no sidewalk and no shoulder to walk on, so I dodged busses for 1/4 mile in search of a town center, found none, and went into the nearest open-looking building I could find.
I had stumbled into a coffee factory. I could smell the beans roasting and could see the shiny copper equipment. A startled man and woman greeted me, confused. I gave my shpiel in Italian.
“I’m looking to eat the best porchetta. You see, I’m a cook and I love porchetta and everyone in Rome and all the other cities I’ve been to eat porchetta d’Ariccia so now I’m here in Ariccia to understand why and eat a few sandwiches.”
When I explained it out loud I laughed inspite of myself, at how ridiculous I sounded. They both smiled. They loved the idea of my adventure.
The man asked me if I would like a coffee and then explained that yes there was porchetta but we were far from it. That the center of old historic Ariccia was a bit of a drive and did I expect to walk there? They looked at each other and shouted for their son. Giancarlo, who looked about my age, with tousled black hair and dark skinny jeans and glasses, appeared from the factory room.
“He’ll drive you, no worries!” Giancarlo did not look thrilled. I said bye and shot back the coffee and they wished me good luck and happy eating. Giancarlo warmed up. We’re friends on Facebook now.
20 minutes later we arrive in the main piazza of a sleepy looking town. I maybe, just maybe for thirty seconds, thought about how I was going to get back to Rome but decided I would figure something out later. I was on a mission.
He dropped me off with instructions. “Take a left down that street, that’s where all the fraschette are. You’ll find all the porchetta you could want.”
Once upon a time a fraschetta referred to a rural tavern where families with vineyards would sell their wine. Customers would bring their own jugs and fill them up, often coming just for a drink and a simple snack. Today many have modernized into ostiaries.
I found a more traditional fraschetta on the corner of the main piazza with one man and one whole hog. I waited my turn and told him my story and started firing off question after question. He obliged my interrogation.
So What's The Deal?
Turns out early Roman priests used to cook pigs in this style and offer them as sacrifice in the temple of Jupiter on Mount Cavo (nearby mountains in Lazio). The tradition has been upheld by porchetarrii, the producers responsible for the porchetta we eat today. There’s even a special festival in Ariccia where the whole town gathers in the main piazza and celebrates the roast beast.
Today, the pigs come from Umbria, but in order to have the official seal of recognition as a “porchetta di Ariccia” product, they must be cooked in Ariccia according to strict guidelines.
Porchetta is a feminine word because traditionally just the female pigs are used—they’re leaner and better suited for the cooking method. Ariccia has giant communal ovens that can roast 5 or 6 pigs at a time. They’re roasted for 5-ish hours and shipped out all over Italy. So they can be sliced for everyone sandwiches, boasting the “PORCHETTA DI ARICCIA” logo that caught my eye in the first place.
I watched the butcher slice from this four foot long golden log. The knife put up a fight to to break through the skin. The whole herb-y center quivered as the meat fell in thin slices. He piled the meat and bits of crust onto plain peasant white bread and gave me a bag with spicy marinated eggplant pickles and olives.
I took my lunch and stood outside under the church in the main piazza. The sandwich was salty and spicy. The plain bread let the meat steal the show and I wished I could have asked him to give me a side of crackling skin because it was so damn good and disruptive in the best way.
I needed to get back to Rome. My phone was at 29% and Google maps didn’t have suggestions and it was raining so hard I might as well have been in the shower. Someone pointed me towards an osteria and told me a bus might come that might take me to Albano and then I might be able to get back to Rome from there. Might.
I waited for an hour and twenty minutes for a bus I wasn’t sure existed. Thirty minutes in I was joined by two women and had two beautiful conversations with a native of Ariccia and a Cuban-turned-Italian woman visiting her daughter. We spoke a mixture of Spanish and Italian, hopping back every other sentence and sometimes every other word. They were so kind. When the bus did arrive they showed me the way and walked me to the train station to buy my ticket and made sure I got on the right platform.
On my way back to Rome I lingered over the porchetta. I thought about the coffee factory and the moments of uncertainty and the generosity of Giancarlo and his parents and the two women who helped me find my way.
Sure you don’t have to go to Ariccia and eat porchetta. You can eat it in any stand or shop in the surrounding regions. I’m sure it will be great. I’m also sure it would taste better in the rain, with a view of an empty wet piazza and the company and conversation of the strangers who helped you get there.
Amanda Shulman is a noodle obsessed cook from Connecticut. She received a degree in journalism and political science from the University of Pennsylvania and is just finishing up a cooking stint at a restaurant in Bergamo, Italy. Pasta is her passion and when she’s not cooking it or eating it, she’s probably writing about it.