Jan Norris: Food and Florida

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Marcello’s La Sirena: New Decor; Special-Occasion Pork Dinners

September 23rd, 2008 · No Comments

Clearly one of my favorite parts of my job as a food writer is going into the kitchens and getting the stories about their foods from the chefs. They’re usually working away and I get to see techniques, taste some interesting stuff and catch up on all the restaurant gossip.Marcello Fiorentino

I recently got an email from Marcello Fiorentino of West Palm Beach’s La Sirena to come and see him — he was cooking a pig. He knew I’d wanted to see this from start to finish, and eat some, too. It was slow enough for both of us, so I dropped by.

 La Sirena is a top-ranked Northern Italian on Dixie Highway. For some time now diners have indicated they’d like to see it fancied up; I think this season, returnees will be quite pleased.

La Sirena dining room

La Sirena dining room

Along with wooden beams that now outline the ceiling and give some depth to the room, there are soft wall sconces that Marcello helped design. The lovely portraits on the back wall are of his parents; my friend remarked that his handsome dad looks a lot like Sal Mineo. And the controversy over whether his mom would approve of the pose featuring her holding a broom made for a great story from Marcello; ask about if you go.

You’ll need to make reservations for the special pigs Marcello is roasting this season – the roast pork dinner is usually available on the weekends only. He’s found a source in New York for fresh shoats — baby pigs, usually around 10 pounds — that he gets in whole. I watched him prepare one for the oven, splitting the cleaned pig in two and simply seasoning it lightly then dressing it with herbs and a bit of oil before putting it in the oven for a long, slow roast.

“These come to me fresh, not frozen, so they’re tender, still on their mother’s milk. The layer of fat is just under its skin, which is very thin and not tough, and it’s so perfect — it comes out so crisp — wait till you see it. The meat is moist and tender and nearly melts in your mouth,” he promised.

Can’t say no to a pitch like that, so I told him to save me two plates for dinner. “I only get six portions per pig — and I’ll sell every one and then some,” he said. He showed me the three different cuts: hams, ribs and front shoulder. Why doesn’t he cook more — or put it on the menu? “It wouldn’t be so special then; I really want to be something diners will look forward to.”

And what about leftovers? “Are you kidding? They’re mine — if there are any that don’t sell. It’s always sold out, though. Usually I just buy an extra pig and cook it at home; I roast it really low and slow overnight in the oven. My daughter Isabelle loves it.”

(Isabelle, 5, happened to appear soon after that with her mom Diane and schoolmate, Mackenzie; the girls both pondered over a branzino — a small European bass that’s become popular in Italian restaurants lately. They both like to eat fish, they told me.)

Isabelle and Mackenzie, with branzino

Isabelle and Mackenzie, with branzino

It was a full house at La Sirena that Friday night. It’s a fact that Marcello doesn’t like you to leave his place hungry or unhappy — you get great service and generous portions. My dining partner, Lou Ann Frala, and I would have been more than satisfied had he served us only the pig and a glass of wine. He wanted us to try “a few” other things, however.

We started with his bruschetta — a nice way to begin any meal. We had a salad of sharp arugula on paper thin slices of brasaola (air-dried beef) and a squeeze of lemon with shaved Parmesan — a classic! Then soft-shelled crab (my only one this season)  a decadently wonderful cheese ravioli with fresh tomatoes and basil; a little gnocchi and some rigatoni, and finally, the roast pork on a bed of fennel. Whew!

I could barely lift my fork by the time the pig came, and after only three bites, gave it up. It was all that Marcello had promised. The skin was so crisp and thin — you could see through it, and the meat so tender, and flavorful — as promised. Lou Ann had better luck, and so got the dessert — zabione with raspberries. Next time, I’m starting with the pig and working around to maybe one other course — the arugula and brasaola, I think. Well, maybe the cheese ravioli, too.

Roast pork

Roast pork

Every home cook can take a lesson from Marcello’s simple preparation: when you have great ingredients, you don’t have to do huge marinades and rubs or sauces Keep it simple — salt, pepper, an herb or two and a dash of oil. Roast at a low temperature for several hours and leave it alone. Make a simple vegetable, and if you like, roast some oiled potato cubes during the last hour of the pork roasting. When it’s this good, that’s all you need.

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