Snapshots from Italy: The Queen of Porchetta
Last week, I took a little lunchtime trip to Frascati, one of a handful of little towns in the Castelli Romani, a culturally rich area just southeast of Rome shadowed by the Alban Hills and dotted with volcanic lakes. Thanks to a direct commuter train, I was there in only 30 minutes, and at the very appealing price of €1.90 (US$2.96) each way.
Frascati is home to a number of grand villas built by some of Rome's most powerful and wealthy families as retreats from the city's sweltering streets. Most of Frascati's day tourists make a beeline straight from the train station to visit the elaborate gardens of Villa Aldobrandini (right), the largest of the estates. I headed in the opposite direction, climbing a steep stone staircase to get to the compact center of town.
After wandering up and down the narrow, cobbled streets, I reached the Piazza del Mercato. As the name implies, it is ringed with the kind of stores that meet the daily needs of residents: an alimentari, a few bakeries, the butcher shop, and a place for household odds and ends. But at the far end of the circular piazza, I paused, gasped, and beheld "Leda, La Regina della Porchetta."
The Queen of Porchetta is actually named Isabella Leoni, who operates one of four porchetta stands in Frascati's utilitarian shopping piazza. Standing for a few minutes and observing the activity, it was easy for me to decide where to get my porchetta sandwich. One by one, they all made their way to Isabella's stand: the banker in a suit and tie; the pierced, leather-clad teenagers; the sanitation guys on their lunch break.
It must suck to be one of the other porchetta-hawkers in the square, where Isabella has a distinct advantage. Although they each had a nice hunk of pork on display, Isabella's was iconic: The skin was a richly colored and glistening, the meat was pink and deeply veined with fennel, garlic, and pepper. An artist capturing the scene would have surely included a glowing, golden halo around it.
The region surrounding the Colli Albani is known for its preparation of porchetta, and Isabella hails from the Ariccia, the area's official porchetta town. Ariccia is popular for its numerous fraschette, simple little places to have a quick bite from a very limited menu that features porchetta. Complete with open, outdoor seating, people from neighboring towns gather at Ariccia's fraschette on weekend nights, eating slices of porchetta by hand and enjoying a glass of the local DOC wine. Isabella has taken her traditional Ariccia porchetta on the road and set up a satellite court in Frascati.
Lucky Frascati. I took my perfect porchetta panino to the wide, shaded walkway in Piazza Roma and dined on a park bench with an equally perfect view of Villa Aldobrandini. For the record, the only two ingredients in this sandwich are bread—a traditional, scored, crusty roll with a moist but sturdy interior—and hand-sliced pieces of pork, with careful consideration given to the ratio of sweet meat to crackling skin. There is no need for any further embellishment, because the meat is just that good. If pork could become candy, this would be it.
An added bonus was the price tag. My day trip, including round-trip transportation, fantastic scenery, and a seriously flawless sandwich, came in at under €10 (US$15.57 at time of publication). Bravo!