Why a $5 festival pig’s head from Esposito’s Porchetta is the best deal in Philly.

The best happy hours deals….The ten best dishes under $12 and less…..The best cheap eats….

Read enough about food on the web and you’re bound to eventually exhaust that portion of your brain that lights up over the mere thought of getting over on somebody.

With minimal effort—and another list—food blogs up their clicks and the reader avoids learning anything about food.

Waaaaaat?! 10¢ wings?! Gonna eat a bucket load!

Save money, put food in face. It’s a win win.

While there’s frequently nothing more sinister behind it then getting paying customers in early in the day or week, we’re often too intoxicated from said notion of savings to consider the most important component: value.

Pig's Head Esposito's Porchetta Philadelphia

$5 dollar festival pig’s heads from Esposito’s Porchetta?! by Daniel McBrearty

That’s, after-all, what keeps me from slowing down my drinking on Thanksgiving and going to bed early ahead of trampling my fellow man before sunrise on Black Friday. It’s also what continues to send me to Melograno for their house made pasta instead of the unlimited alternative at Olive Garden.

Last year, however, I did find Philly’s best deal. And it’s a steal loaded with value.

I was at the 2014 Italian Market Festival. I was in line with Mom at the stand set up by Esposito’s Porchetta on the east side of Carpenter at 9th.

Everything was in our favor that day. Right as we were handed our pork and sharp provolone sandwiches dripping with juice, we shuffled over to the two self-serve bowls they put out. As I loaded up with pickled hot peppers, an employee replenished the second container with a landslide of tectonic, steaming pig skin from a fresh-from-the-fire pig that was being broken down a few feet away. Perfectly crispy, some of it held beautifully fatty meat that was either brilliantly crispy or delectably tender.

But we wanted more before applying the spicy mustard.

“Could we have some meat from the cheeks?” I asked, referring to the pig’s head staring back at me.

“Those are for sale,” the woman replied.

"They keep on passing me by......"

“They keep on passing me by……”

“Oh. How much?” I asked, thinking she was going to say $25 or even $30.

“Five dollars,” she said, and I’m floored in the short moment that ends quickly with me blurting out, “I’ll take it!”

As we ate our sandwiches I couldn’t help but refer to the bag in the middle of the table.

What’s that? Hint: it’s not Gwenyth Paltrow’s head.

Ahead of getting the same value meal at this year’s Italian Market Festival (a sandwich and 1 pig’s head for a total of $12), I snagged a pig’s head from La Porchetta—a food truck usually found in West Philly—in the waning minutes of the Night Market on May 14th.

Eye muscle.

Eye muscle.

While I paid more ($20) for the pig’s head from La Porchetta, my reluctance to haggle much—I only talked them down $5—isn’t entirely grounded in stupidity (these things aren’t hot commodities).

I knew just how many tacos (12-18) I was going to get out of it (and the people at La Porchetta promised a free pig’s head when ordering a larger cut such as a shoulder).

With fresh tortillas from Tortilleria San Roman on 9th St. on hand, you just throw said pig’s head in the oven for about 30 minutes ahead of getting your hand’s dirty a la The Mountain vs The Viper. In both cases, I threw all the meat in a medium sized glass container so that the meat would cook in its own fat on reheating.

Breaking down the head reveals the subtle to distinct contrasts that you can find. There’s the juicy, tender cheeks that I was lucky to find whole on the last head from Esposito’s. The strands of slightly chewy dark meat along the snout. The fatty, singular flavor of the tongue if you’re lucky enough to get that as well. Follow the jaw line up and, digging in behind the eyes, you’ll find meat on par with roast beef for the way it’s flavor pays off the visual of dark brown running to light tan to a sweet, mellow red.

Pork cheek taco: golden raisins and dried cherries in a red wine reduction. Mustard greens and arugula.

Pork cheek taco: golden raisins and dried cherries in a red wine reduction. Mustard greens and arugula.

From there, the eyes—seemingly globs of delicious fat rather than anything pulled from Fear Factor—are easily had. Eat whole or mix with some of the juicy meat that reaches deeply back into the eye sockets.

Besides any residual neck meat or the cheeks, the best meat comes from the jowls and the thick fatty areas running up the side of the head. As with pork belly, you’ll think most of it is fat at first. But upon ripping that fat apart, you’ll see all the cables—from fine to a medium thinkness—that give this fat structure. This meat, the lightest in color, is also the sweetest. So be patient and keep ripping all that fat apart.

This meat particularly illustrates what is so great about a pig’s head: all the meat confits with the head acting as a self-contained unit.

Cooked in delicious fat.

Cooked in delicious fat.

Whereas Esposito’s festival day sandwiches supplied a lot of contrast—briny peppers and salty, sharp provolone, plus spicy mustard—with the complementing fatty skin that added a nice contrasting crunch, I kept it simple with the tacos I made, adding a complementing element of sweetness to the fatty, sweet pork, along with an element of bitterness (arugula, water cress, or mustard greens). For sweetness, last year I made a cherry compote. This year, I avoided a long, slow simmer by using rhubarb jam from Rineer Family Farms that I picked up at the Saturday Rittenhouse farmer’s market.

On another day, I did make a wine reduction—cooked with dried cherries, golden raisins, honey, and a bit of butter—for the pig’s cheeks. After being too lazy to make polenta (perfect for holding that sauce) they became some of the most extravagant tacos I’ve ever made.

Of course, I’m not going out on a limb by pairing these cuts with something sweet.

Alla Spina has been showcasing pig’s heads (brined for three days, braised, and roasted off) in a beer agrodolce since they opened, with prices of $45 for smaller pig’s heads, and up to $75 for larger ones (Craig Laban wrote about them here).

Fried pig tails with fennel agrodolce at Alla Spina.

Fried pig tails with fennel agrodolce at Alla Spina.

I recently sampled a similar pairing through their fried pig tails with fennel agrodolce and their pig’s head bruschetta served with jam.

But, if pig’s heads make for such simple, beautiful pairings, why are so many people passing them by at 9th St. festivals?

There was the guy at The Italian Market Fest last month who, with girlfriend in tow, told me what an awesome idea it was when I said I was going to use the head to make tacos—though he didn’t scoop one up for the same bargain rate.

Maybe his girlfriend would have been put off or perhaps he just didn’t want to bother—admittedly, for someone who loves to cook, stripping down all the meat is a bit of a pain in the ass (having fridge beers or bourbon on hand is a must).

But, Alix Vallery, the sous chef at Alla Spina, holds up weekly service since the restaurant’s opening in 2012 as evidence that the dish has moved from being a delicacy to become part of the norm. “People will even dig in and eat the brain,” she says (I wrote upon diving in on some lamb brains here).

“Sure, you have some people who don’t want to see the head of the animal they’re eating—it’s makes them recognize the life of that animal and what they’re eating,” Vallery says.

“But people who love food and are into where their food comes, they embrace it. You can have the head on the fish or a Peking duck.”

For those who recognize what an insane deal Esposito’s Porchetta offers, you’ll have to look for them at La Festa Della Repubblica on Passyunk this Sunday, June 7, 11-7pm. They’re pulling double duty that day since they’ll also have a table at The Italian American Heritage Heritage Festival in Media, PA, 11-5pm. Or, you can inquire about pig’s heads at their shop on S. 10th St.

 

Esposito’s Porchetta                                                                                                                                                  1627 S. 10th St.                                                                                                                                            Philadelphia, PA 19148                                                                                                                                           215-271-8418

 

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