First Taste: Porcellino’s Craft Butcher

Meat me in Memphis

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It’s not easy waiting for the first plates to arrive at your table when you’re staring at a meat counter glowing just beyond your date’s head. Especially when that meat counter is as well stocked as the one at Memphis’ Porcellino’s Craft Butcher, stuffed to the brim with sausage, chops and a steak as long as your arm. Making eyes at hulking porterhouses while we tick away the moments until the pork-belly dumplings arrive, we’re damn near drooling.

29_porcellinos_webMemphis is a Delta destination for dining, and Porcellino’s is no exception. The restaurant—from the lauded team behind the city’s Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen and Hog & Hominy—functions as both butcher shop and restaurant, its dining room walls portholed with windows into tiny rooms for baking, curing and carving. For the easily distracted, a seat at any one of the restaurant’s dozen or so marble tables is like a trip to a foodie living-history museum, with working chefs on display behind glass.

More often, though, as the evening wears on, the lights dim in the chefs’ workspaces, and the focus turns to the dining room. Bearded 20-somethings hunch over glasses of craft beer and cocktails at the bar, bitterly engaged in wishing away the clouds for a clear-sky game of bocce in the court outside that separates Porcellino’s from Hog & Hominy.

32_porcellinos_webInside, the feeling is plenty cozy, with gray walls and a vintage black-and-white mosaic tile floor. The room is small for a restaurant, with seats for around 50. Perching on stools beneath large windows, well-dressed dinner dates gaze at the street outside, which doesn’t host much in the way of foot traffic. The odd circle drive is filled with converted ranch houses, many resurrected as restaurants. All three of the restaurants owned by the Andrew Michael team are on this same stretch, meaning parking is sometimes a struggle. There are parking lots, yes, but not big ones. You’ll likely have to do your best with street parking—even at off-peak hours.

Dining at an ungodly bright hour in the evening ensures quick seating at the no-reservations spot and, more importantly, first crack at what will henceforth be known as the “Cart of Unending Temptation.” It’s the devil, this cart. Or carts, plural. I can’t quite tell. Our C.U.T. is seafoam green with a wooden handle, maneuvered by a handful of young staff throughout the evening. On it? Hummus. Shaved, tricolored carrots with cream and cured egg. Razor clams. Paella (the best you’ve tried, says our server).

14_porcellinos_webEvery half hour or so, the cart rumbles by with a new treat, the neatly written price—usually $8—displayed on a stand. The cart bumps over the tile until it parks at your table, and the server makes the sell. Would you like to try? Well, of course you would. Even if you did just order a trio of small plates off the menu. Why not add a fourth and fifth and then dessert? The concept of impulse dining is so successful, it’s scary. Diners who would be loathe to order a carrot dish based on its menu description  (ahem, guilty)  are easily swayed when it’s wheeled by.
Each night brings a different cart lineup, though it seems some favorites show up more often than others. The carrots—thin shavings piled neatly and tossed in rich cream and Parmesan with savory cured egg yolk grated on top—make frequent appearances. The plate tastes more pasta than veg and is a hard act to follow.

64_porcellinos_webFrom the menu, the Brussels sprouts similarly win us over. Anyone can do lightly charred Brussels with bacon, but Porcellino’s serves theirs dotted with strips of chewy pig ear. Other winners: a plate of four tender dumplings plump with pork belly and sauteed collard greens swimming in broth made with nduja—a spicy Italian pork sausage—and a coffee custard dessert so good we nearly order a second round. Served in a Mason jar, the custard comes layered with chocolate cookie crumbles and whipped cream like a refined pudding cup. Mason-jar desserts are a bit kitschy, but when they’re this good, the serving vessel takes a back seat. Even if that vessel does make it difficult for us to scrape out everysinglebite.

The one misstep on our visit is a plate of surprisingly tough ribs, served sprinkled with peanuts, sesame seeds and garlic. The flavor is there, but the meat is chewy, not tender—a real disappointment after staring at that butcher case. But with so many other rounds of delicious dishes—not to mention a round of killer Negronis—one tough rib doesn’t spoil the bunch.

As we polish off the last of our meal and gaze around the room with glossy eyes and full bellies, that meat case beckons again. Would there be a cooler big enough to shuttle a mammoth tomahawk steak back to Little Rock? Is a jar of Kool-Aid pickles the kind of thing we’d want riding shotgun if we get stuck in that dreaded I-40 traffic?

In the end, we waddle out into the fading sunlight to push our way back home through the Delta empty-handed. Frugal, yes, and it’s not like we’ll starve. Should we hit that interstate slog, there are plenty of exits for barbecue, tamales and pie. But not for shaved carrots with cured egg or custard-filled Mason jars.

No, for those, it’s only Memphis.42_porcellinos_web