TYPICAL BUCKET LISTS tend to include exotic travel and thrilling adventure, but my list, were I to write one, would consist of a number of world-class dishes, like porchetta, that I've always dreamed of mastering yet never seem to find the time (or energy) to attempt. Traditional porchetta involves a whole pig that's been gutted and boned, stuffed with its own offal, seasoned with a heady mix of wild fennel, herbs and garlic, neatly trussed and then slowly spit-roasted over an open fire. The results will cause any pork lover to swoon, but the prospect of procuring and boning a whole pig and then wrangling it over a fire pit in my small and densely wooded yard seemed beyond impossible in this lifetime.
This all changed a few years ago when I visited chef Sara Jenkins's popular pocket-size eatery in Manhattan's East Village named, appropriately, Porchetta. As a friend and I stood at the counter watching the cooks prepare our order (a plate of sliced porchetta for me, a crusty sandwich for him), I had one of those rare moments of culinary revelation: They were slicing the meat not off an entire roasted pig but from a manageable-size pork roast—plump and cylindrical, with a large eye of juicy, rosy meat surrounded by thick layers of melting fat, all encased in a crackling skin. My very first taste awakened long-suppressed fantasies of actually making this remarkable dish myself.
At home, I looked through the various meat-buying guides in my library, but I couldn't figure out what type of roast I had seen—and hungrily devoured—at the restaurant. Finally I contacted Ms. Jenkins, and she wisely explained, "I knew it would take too much space to handle whole hogs, so I modeled my version on [Tuscan butcher] Dario Cecchini's famed arista"—the name for a Tuscan pork roast. That version involves slathering a boneless pork loin with the traditional porchetta seasonings, wrapping it in a fresh pork belly and then slow-roasting the whole thing (in an ordinary oven, indoors!) until the meat is tender and the skin crisp. Not having access to Dario Cecchini, nor time for an impromptu trip to Italy, I consulted Bruce Aidells's "Complete Book of Pork." Mr. Aidells helpfully describes a similar roast, inspired by another true Italian version, this one from Peck, the renowned gourmet shop in Milan. Armed with the confidence that I could produce something reasonably authentic without a whole beast and within the confines of my own kitchen, I embarked on my own adventure.
Thinking about the two cuts I needed—a boneless loin and a fresh belly—I remembered enough about pig butchery from my days as a culinary-school instructor to know that these start out as one piece. The loin comes from the back of the pig—it's that big thick muscle that runs along either side of the spine—and the belly comes from the front side. I thought it more in keeping with the original whole-hog concept to create my porchetta by keeping the loin and belly intact and simply wrapping the belly flap around the loin. Knowing that I probably wouldn't find what I needed at a standard supermarket, I visited a butcher and explained what I was after. He was happy enough to comply, though I had to wait a few days until his next delivery from the farm.
Back in my kitchen, I unrolled the meat and scored the rind using a box-cutter, making the lines as close-together as I had the patience for, aiming for about a half inch apart. I knew from past failures with skin-on pork shoulder roasts that skipping this step could result in skin that turns into an impenetrable shield instead of the crackly, crunchy bits that everyone loves.
Next I contemplated what seasonings to use. Ms. Jenkins uses wild fennel pollen, but she said that ground fennel seed makes a fine substitute. Having no pollen on hand, I went with the seed, toasting it lightly before grinding and combining it with a generous amount of garlic, herbs, lemon zest, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. I smeared this all over the loin and the inside of the belly, and then rolled and trussed the whole into a stout roast. After refrigerating the meat for two days to give the seasonings a chance to penetrate, I cranked the oven up to 500 degrees for the first 25 minutes of roasting, to crisp the skin, and then lowered the heat to 325 to allow the meat to finish cooking gently for a full three hours—ample time to bathe in all that luscious fat underneath the skin.
In Italy, porchetta is street food, often tucked into a crusty roll with no adornment, but for me this was about a dream realized, and I wanted an appropriately festive menu. So I took my lead again from Ms. Jenkins and prepared a big pot of slow-cooked white beans and a skillet of braised broccoli rabe and kale to serve on the side. The roast was superb, offering all the elements I could ever want in porchetta—tender meat, unctuous fat, shattering shards of skin and plenty of aromatics.
Given my exceptional success with this once-daunting undertaking, I may just have to write that list and see what else is possible. Life's too short to miss out on any more good eating.
Hands-On Time: 1 hour Total Time: 2½ days Serves: 10 to 12, with leftovers
If you can't find a pork loin with belly flap attached, shop for a 5-pound boneless center-cut pork loin plus one 4- to 5-pound pork belly with skin attached. Recipe adapted from "All About Roasting: A New Approach to a Classic Art," by Molly Stevens.
1 center-cut pork loin with belly flap attached and skin on (8 to 9 pounds)
6 garlic cloves, minced
1½ tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon fennel seeds, toasted and ground to a coarse powder
1 tablespoon finely grated lemon zest
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1½ tablespoons kosher salt, plus more, to taste
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, plus more, to taste
What To Do
1. Start by evaluating pork and trimming as necessary. Ideally you want a layer of fat just under ½ inch thick. If you've bought a separate pork loin and pork belly (as described above), drape belly (skin-side up) around pork loin to get a sense of how it will fit. It doesn't have to be perfect, but if it extends more than ½ inch over ends of loin, trim it down. If there's a gap on the underside because belly doesn't reach all the way around, that's fine.
2. Arrange belly, whether separate or attached, so it sits skin-side up on a stable work surface. Using a box cutter, utility knife or other razor-sharp blade, carefully (but firmly) score rind in criss-crossing parallel lines about ½ inch apart, cutting through rind and just into fat (about ¼ inch deep) without cutting through to meat.
3. In a small bowl combine garlic, rosemary, sage, thyme, fennel, lemon zest, red pepper flakes, salt and pepper. Flip belly part of roast so it's skin-side down, and rub seasoning over entire surface of loin and on inside of belly.
4. Assemble roast by wrapping belly (skin-side out) around loin. Secure roast with kitchen string, tying loops at 1- to 2-inch intervals.
5. Season surface of roast lightly but evenly with salt and pepper, rubbing some into score marks.
6. Set roast on a tray and refrigerate, uncovered, 48 hours. Let pork sit at room temperature 1-2 hours before roasting.
7. Position a rack in lower third of oven and heat to 500 degrees. Place pork seam-side down on a roasting rack set in a roasting pan just large enough to accommodate it. Roast 25 minutes, then reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Continue to roast until an instant-read thermometer inserted into center of roast registers 140-145 degrees, another 2-3 hours.
8. Transfer roast to a carving board, preferably one with a trough. Let rest at least 25 minutes. (The roast can easily sit at room temperature for an hour or more.)
9. Carve into ¼- to ½-inch-thick slices, removing strings as you go and doing your best to give each serving a bit of crackling rind. If rind is too tough to slice through easily, remove it in larger chunks and transfer it to a second cutting board, where you can chop it into pieces to serve alongside the sliced roast. Use leftover meat for sandwiches, on good crusty bread.
A version of this article appeared January 5, 2013, on page D3 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Pragmatist's Porchetta.