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Phil pigs out in Italy.    Italy

Y MONTH-LONG journey to India in the summer of 1997 ended with a harrowing near-death experience when my gall bladder exploded on the way home. That incident had nothing to with any food I ate in India; my diseased gall bladder would most likely have failed soon, even if I had stayed home and eaten oatmeal.
    Nonetheless, a number of my friends immediately began speculating that this would finally put an end to my days of eating exotic foods in foreign countries.
    They were wrong. Less than two months later, Darlene and I were privileged to visit Italy with our dear friends Joe and Georgia Aleppo. Joe and Georgia were both born and raised in Sicily, and they are the perfect hosts for a tour of Italy—especially if you are interested in food. Georgia is a primo cook, and Joe is a first-class connoisseur of Italian food. (I always follow his lead in Italian restaurants, and he has never steered me wrong.)
    So it was no big surprise when after a day of touring the ruins of Pompeii, Joe knew just where to stop for food on the way back to Rome.
    It was a filling station.

ell, OK. It was more than a filling station. It was an Agip (pronounced "ah JEEP") station adjacent to one of those famous Autogrill restaurants that dot the highways of Italy. But the best food at this particular rest stop did not come from the Autogrill. The Agip complex had a row of shops that included a little Italian delicatessen.
    The centerpiece of the deli was the largest loaf of bologna I had ever seen. Only don't call it bologna; this was mortadella, a marvelously tasty Italian cold cut. And I am not exaggerating when I say this loaf was huge. It was nearly two feet in diameter. Cut a slice the thickness of regular lunch meat, and you could then quarter that slice and have enough meat for four large sandwiches.
    Georgia went inside to get some mortadella. The shop had room for only one customer at a time, so the rest of us stood outside where we could look in the window.
    The shop was fascinating. There were many kinds of dried meat and sausage hanging from the ceiling. One slab of baconlike meat had thick hog bristles covering one side. As I was studying that, thinking how unappetizing those pig hairs were, I heard Joe exclaim, "Oh! They have porchetta!
    Slab o' HogI looked where he was pointing and saw a grisly sight. On a table in front of us lay half a pig, sawn in two at the midsection. The pig looked as if it had been roasted whole. And the midsection oozed some sort of greenish-black substance. My position had me looking right into the pig's body cavity, and the dark goo looked for all the world like rotten pig guts. From my perspective I could not tell if the half-carcass was the front end or the back end of the hog. But there was no mistaking that it was indeed one half or the other of a roasted porker.

oe explained that this was porchetta (pronounced "pork ET ta")— a Roman delicacy. A pig was gutted, stuffed with herbs, and roasted whole on a spit. The dark goo was the herb stuffing. The deli clerks sawed cut-to-order slabs from the cross-section, and (Joe solemnly assured me) this sort of meat made wonderful sandwiches.
    I looked at this half-pig, lying on the table—with no refrigeration for who knows how long—and I guess Joe detected a sign of doubt in my expression. Because he immediately called to Georgia and asked her to get some of the porchetta so I could taste it.
    Others in our party detected what was happening and began to move away, lest they too be offered a "slab o' hog," as we had already nicknamed the swine sandwiches.
    Though I knew I would never get away with it, I ambled nonchalantly away from the deli and moseyed into a convenience store adjacent to the Agip station—and began acting as if I were shopping for soft drinks.
    But within moments, Joe and Georgia found me, and Georgia was excitedly thrusting a slab-o-hog sandwich at me. "Here," she said, smiling. "Try some porchetta." She had already unwrapped the sandwich from its deli-diaper, so there was no turning it down.

looked at the sandwich. A generous portion of the roast pig was placed between pieces of foccacio bread. How bad could this possibly be? I wondered—and decided the best thing to do was simply bite into it.
    Well, it was terrific. The bread alone was wonderful, spiced lightly with rosemary, and very fresh. The pig tasted like fine roast pork, wonderfully seasoned with the "Scarborough Fair" combination: parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme. It was truly delectable.
    I really mean it. This stuff was wonderful. The only unpleasant moment was when I bit into something I could not identify that was crunchy, with roughly the same texture as an eggshell. Turns out it was a bit of pigskin, broiled hard over the fire. Joe said the crackling-tough skin is his favorite part.
    Anyway, if you're ever near Rome and want to try some local food, look for porchetta. You won't find it elsewhere in Italy—only in Rome. But it is definitely worth looking for. I give it two very enthusiastic piggies up.


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