The Butcher, the Baker, and the Coffee Maker
• Photographs by Justin Fox Burks •
M orning customers to Porcellino’s in East Memphis might be tempted to grab a stool at the bar, anchored by a vintage Italian espresso machine at one end and a domed cake plate with chocolate croissants at the other. But here’s another suggestion: Head for the center of the restaurant, settle into a bistro table, and watch how pastry chef Kayla Palmer spends her day. Working behind a framed picture window, Palmer is precise and rhythmic, a percussionist playing dough. She rolls, folds, taps, and trims, and then flips the dough over, repeating her refrain. Nearby, assistant Nichole Spears makes cinnamon rolls, and when Palmer leans in to talk, the bakers look seductive and domestic, like a famed Vermeer painting from the Dutch Golden Age. Little wonder customers of all ages like to stop and watch. “I had this one child tapping on the window to get my attention, which is exactly what we hoped would happen,” says Palmer. “We want customers to see beyond the walls, to be part of what we are doing.”
A spirited transparency informs the people and processes at Porcellino’s Craft Butcher, the latest culinary undertaking on Brookhaven Circle from Memphis chefs Andrew Ticer and Michael Hudman. Open since late December, Porcellino’s is a hybrid of sorts with a full-service butcher, a casual restaurant for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, a bar for coffee, beer, and cocktails, and a grab-and-go for house-made specialties like gelato, soup stocks, Maw Maw’s gravy, and slice-and-bake cookies, either oatmeal or chocolate chip. Although building renovations to this former residence started last summer, the dream of a custom butcher shop selling charcuterie and responsibly farmed meat started six years ago, soon after the opening of Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, Ticer and Hudman’s flagship restaurant located across the street.
“I’m most excited to bring back the community butcher,” Hudman says. “I think the conversation that’s going on about food at restaurants really begins at home, and Andy and I have wanted to be part of that conversation in Memphis for a long time. This butcher shop helps us do that.”
Head butcher Aaron Winters agrees with the contagious enthusiasm of a college drum major. “We want the butcher shop to be the heart of the neighborhood,” he says. “We want to know our customers by name.”
While Porcellino’s, an Italian word meaning little pig, sells standard cuts of meat and poultry, butchers also sell atypical cuts not common in American supermarkets, like heavily marbled spider steak and pork eye of round, described by Winters as “absolutely delicious.” Customers also can custom-order cuts from 400-pound quarters of beef dry-aged in Porcellino’s impressive walk-in coolers.
P orcellino’s charcuterie also is made in-house, using side-by-side curing rooms controlled for temperature and humidity. The selection is a little dizzying: bacon, city ham, Tasso ham, duck prosciutto, capicola, pancetta cotto, or lean pork belly, and pancetta tesa, a pork salami rinsed with white wine after curing. House-made sausages fill the case, as well, including sweet Italian, Boudin blanc, roasted green chili, and “fun stuff,” like Bari, a pork and lamb sausage flavored with tomato paste, Pecorino cheese, and fresh herbs that reminds Winters of the countryside in Tuscany. “Once you know the basics of making sausage, it’s all about flavor memories,” says Winters, who first learned meat preservation as a youngster from his grandfather, an apprentice butcher in Cleveland during the Great Depression. This summer, the former head chef of Hog & Hominy, Ticer and Hudman’s second restaurant, apprenticed in Panzano, Italy, with world-renowned butcher Dario Cecchini and salumeria Filippo Gambassi, where he studied not only butchery but the respectful relationships between people and the animals they eat. “Happy animals produce better tasting meat,” Winters says. “They really do.”
A circuitous path led Winters from military service to Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, where he shed a lucrative career in retail electronics for an entry-level cooking job. He credits his opportunities to Ticer and Hudman’s tutelage and to the esprit de corps that is the heartbeat of the chefs’ three Memphis restaurants.
Ticer, who is expecting his second child with wife Karie Ticer in late February, says relationships are the keystone to continued success. “Mike and I can’t just take off and spend a few months in Italy anymore, but Aaron can,” he says. “That is why all of this works: We are building teams, and the teams are taking ownership of their responsibilities and their crafts.”
Close relationships at Porcellino’s extend from staff to farmers. Beef, pork, and lamb are locally sourced from Newman Farm in Myrtle, Missouri; Claybrook Farms in Covington, Tennessee; and Double H Farms in Nashville. Heritage breeds extend to poultry, as well, such as Spanish Black turkeys, an heirloom breed favored by early American colonists.
Porcellino’s ties with the late Mark Newman and his family members, who continue to raise the farm’s signature Berkshire pork, are particularly intimate. Ticer lauds Newman and his wife, Rita, for the restaurant’s deep connection to food, family, and farm-to-table.
“We always say Mark and Rita are our food parents,” Ticer says. “They were with us from day one, and taught us so much about how life on a farm works and how to really appreciate where our food comes from.”
A lready, over-sized Newman Farm ribs, crisscrossed in a pretty white bowl like a miniature jungle gym, are the most popular plate on the menu, encrusted with peanuts, puffed rice, sesame seeds, and fried garlic. Other small plates also blend flavor and fun, taking prosaic vegetables in creative new directions. Consider braised cabbage, for instance. Porcellino’s chargrills it and then brightens it back up with pickled mustard seeds, kimchi vinaigrette, and small squares of crispy pork belly. Think beets sound boring? Then try them as a dessert salad with tangerines, gorgonzola, and pistachio relish in a sweet crimson pool of cranberry vinaigrette.
Drinks also figure prominently at Porcellino’s from morning to night, starting with Ticer and Hudman’s dream coffee menu from head barista Destinee Naccarato. Cicerone and manager Rebecca McQuary, who developed Porcellino’s craft beer list (two dozen in bottles and cans and draft from local brewery Wiseacre) are particularly excited about iced coffee infused with liquid nitrogen. “For most people, the nitrogen makes the coffee taste like Guinness,” McQuary explains.
Cocktails at Porcellino’s, confidently updated from original recipes, show similar elan. Still, some of the drinks, like the daiquiri and the Vesper, don’t have the best reputations, perceptions Porcellino’s intends to change.
“The daiquiri has been sort of bastardized,” says beverage director Nick Talarico. “Once we went back to original recipes from places like the Havana Club, we found daiquiris that were less sweet and more acidic. Suddenly, they got a lot more interesting.”
The Vesper, the infamous martini invented by author Ian Fleming for James Bond, underwent a similar transformation, substituting cocchi Americano, a more crisp and herbaceous Italian aperitif, for Fleming’s French Lillet. Talarico also reduced the amounts of gin and vodka called for in Casino Royale.
“Unless you are James Bond, you probably can’t drink Fleming’s Vesper and survive,” Talarico says. “So we made ours a little smaller.”
Porcellino’s attention to details extends from its drink and food menus to the restaurant’s space from Memphis-based Fleming Architects and Sarah Spinosa, a local designer. Paintings of grazing Red Poll cattle by Memphis artist Adam Geary accentuate sage-green walls, and reclaimed bleachers from St. Louis Catholic School, where Hudman attended grade school, shape countertops for the restaurant’s bar and window seating.
“We cleaned the bleachers with mineral spirits, but left the original varnish,” says Daniel O’Grady of Memphis Crafted Classics. “We liked the feel and the look of the patina.”
O’Grady’s craftsmanship extends to Andrew Michael Italian Kitchen, where his bleached white oak bar is part of the restaurant’s major renovation, scheduled to be completed by Valentine’s Day. Along with the expanded bar and cocktail lounge, the restaurant’s new amenities include cathedral ceilings, a private dining room, and an outdoor fire pit built of stone. The restaurant’s notoriously cramped kitchen also is doubling in size. “I wish I could have every new employee work in the old kitchen, just so they will really appreciate the new one,” Ticer says. “I can hardly wait.”
For breakfast Try a morning bun layered with sugar and fennel pollen ($6), a biscuit sandwich with scrambled egg, American cheese, and city ham ($6), and a $5 mimosa on Sunday.
For lunch Try beef stew (smell the thyme!) with an Italian knot roll ($8), a roast beef sandwich ($9), and a high-octane, nitrogen-infused cold coffee ($4.25).
For dinner Try dumplings stuffed with collard greens and pork belly in Nduja broth ($10), any tasting plate (they change nightly) from the tea cart ($6), and salted caramel gelato with a scoop of candy cane ($7).