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The backyard pig roast moves indoors

Nose-to-tail diners and locavore cooking have put the pig in the restaurant spotlight

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By Devra First
Globe Staff / March 23, 2011

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On Sunday, Jay Nungesser and 19 of his closest friends piled into Posto, an Italian restaurant in Somerville known for its wood-fired Neapolitan-style pizza. They were celebrating his housemate’s birthday, but they were not there for the pies. They had come to eat a whole hog.

“A good portion of us you would call foodies,’’ says Nungesser, a graphic designer, who lives near the restaurant. “An experience like this is something we’ve never done before. So many friends of mine were interested.’’

Chef Joe Cassinelli prepares the whole pigs for parties of 10 or more. To get one requires at least a week’s notice. “It takes a little time to get a nice pig,’’ he says. Meat purveyor Savenor’s finds him heritage breeds raised on a farm in Vermont, so young they’re just off milk. When the pig arrives, the chef stuffs it with sausage, marinates it overnight, and roasts it in his wood oven for a total of about five hours.

“It’s a primitive way of cooking,’’ Cassinelli says. The blast of high heat at the beginning of the process results in well-rendered fat and exceptionally crisp, crackly skin, he explains. The pig is served family style, with sides such as wood-roasted rosemary potatoes and fennel-citrus salad.

“Sometimes I name him, Rafael or Luigi or whoever it’s going to be,’’ he says. “It’s really cool — you take the pig out in the dining room and everyone freaks out. The head goes to the table, and the trotters and the hooves. People don’t get to see the whole thing all the time. This way, you get all the drama.’’

His is not the only local restaurant serving whole pigs. Citizen Public House & Oyster Bar, tapas bar Estragon, and the just-opened Remick’s in Quincy are among the establishments offering them by special request. (The cost is usually about $40 per person with a 10-person minimum.) Estragon also serves just the head, as does Craigie on Main. East Coast Grill prepares a smoked pig in a different style each Sunday night.

Nose-to-tail cooking has come to prominence over the last decade. On restaurant menus, tails, trotters, and organs have seen an impressive image makeover — from icky to trendy. Eating the odd bits appeals to the omnivorous, the frugal, and the sustainability-minded alike. It’s no longer a surprise to hear about a chef who makes use of whole animals. So it is, perhaps, inevitable that diners would hunger to eat them that way, too.

“I love the idea of being able to use the whole thing,’’ Nungesser says. “It’s a little more personal. It’s not just an anonymous piece of meat. Custom butchery and the whole locavore, nose-to-tail cooking thing, I’m excited to see it coming back.’’

At Citizen Public House, which opened in October, the pig roasts quickly became a signature. Chef Brian Reyelt cooks one a night, and the events are booked almost solid through May. Co-owner Dave Dubois never anticipated this level of popularity. “I’m shocked. Shocked. Really shocked,’’ he says. “It’s way beyond anything we could imagine. To date this year, there have only been three days we haven’t cooked a pig.’’

At Citizen, the pig roast begins with oysters, clams, and shrimp cocktail. Then out comes the whole pig, which has been slow-roasted for 14 hours, stuffed with ground pork and seasonal ingredients such as butternut squash, apples, and herbs. After everyone has admired the animal, it’s wheeled away for carving and served with several sides. These also change according to the season — in the winter, you might find Brussels sprouts, broccoli gratin, and whipped potatoes.

Dubois believes the dinners are so popular primarily because of the novelty. “There’s a certain ‘check it off the bucket list’ mentality when you’re talking about eating the eyeball of a pig,’’ he says. “We bake our own soda crackers, and you spread the brain, then add a squeeze of lemon and sea salt. People actually kind of like it.’’

But it’s not just that. Family-style dining is simply fun. Dubois says, “Whoever’s at this party, it seems like a good time. And then you can say to yourself later, ‘Hey, you remember five or six years ago when we all got together and ate that pig?’ ’’

Pigalle and Marco chef Marc Orfaly used to do pig roasts years ago when he worked at Olives. At his new restaurant, Remick’s, there’s an emphasis on group dining, with communal tables and family-style dinners on Sundays. He’s reviving the tradition. He plans to serve his roast pigs with Caesar salad to start, then a variety of sides such as cauliflower gratin or collard greens that will incorporate any leftover bits of the animal.

“There’s zero waste,’’ he says. “I think the pig might have a little bit of a renaissance thing going on for it. It matches the style of dining that’s going on today. Everybody’s doing tapas-y, family-style dining. It really plays in with the whole sharing thing. And there’s definitely a romantic notion of doing a whole roasted animal.’’

For Julio de Haro of Estragon, roasting whole animals is a way of life. He grew up in Spain, eating roast suckling pigs and baby lambs. “All through Castilla, they were a staple,’’ he says. “Segovia is extremely famous for this. One restaurant has been around probably almost a century, right at the foot of the aqueducts. People from Madrid on Sundays go to Segovia to have suckling pig and baby lamb.’’

At his South End restaurant, he slathers pigs in lard or butter, then slow-roasts them in a pan with water and bay leaves. At the end, he glazes them in honey and orange juice. He might serve the meat with sliced potatoes poached in olive oil. “It’s very traditional for Spain,’’ de Haro says.

It could become a tradition in Boston, too, with diners increasingly interested in eating noses, tails, and everything in between. Dubois says his customers relish the chance to sample ears and offal. “There are only a few exceptions where people haven’t at least tried it.’’

He has only one concern about the popularity of Citizen Public House’s pig roasts. “I’m praying when I get to the pearly gates there’s not a pig standing there,’’ he says.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

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