You’ll forgive us if, lately, we’ve felt a bit of snout-to-tail ennui. After all, it’s become increasingly easy to find chefs who are happy to serve you all the eyeballs, brains, tripe, and, yes, tails anyone could possibly want. So when we first got word of the sanguinaccio that’s being served at Ornella Trattoria in Queens, we perhaps weren’t as excited as we should have been. (We won’t ruin the surprise here if you don’t know, or haven’t yet guessed, what this Italian specialty’s secret ingredient is.) Lucky for us, Bradley O’Bryan Hawks made a beeline to the fourteen-month-old Italian eatery and got the lowdown for us.
You won’t find sanguinaccio printed on the menu of any Italian restaurant or scribbled on the dessert board of even the most old-school Italian bakeries in New York. Yes, Mario Batali has a recipe for it, but anyone who speaks Italian knows his is missing a critical ingredient. That’s probably because, unless you grew up craving this seasonal chocolate pudding as a traditional family favorite, that critical ingredient just might make you a little squeamish. In addition to shaved chocolate, milk, orange peels, sugar (and pine nuts, cinnamon, bread bits, or candied fruits, depending on the regional preference), the key element in sanguinaccio is the “sangue”: the blood of a freshly slaughtered pig.
In Italy, sanguinaccio is traditionally served in the winter, when pigs are most commonly slaughtered. Families in the countryside prepare salcicce, prosciutto, sopressata, and salame, and then invite friends for a feast using any remaining parts of the pig that cannot be preserved. (Because the blood must be cooked or frozen within 24 hours, a ban in the nineties in many regions of Italy has nearly halted the production of the pudding. )
Even Giuseppe Viterale — who pronounces it SAN-gwee-NAHTCH, dropping the last vowels — refrains from printing it on his menu at Ornella Trattoria in Astoria. “It’s something you just have to taste before you know what’s in it,” he says. “And then fugheddaboudit, you will love it!” He currently features it once a week as the dessert on Pork Night — a four-course pork-themed meal offered each Thursday. Loyal regulars, or anyone in the know and brave enough, might even be able to coax a cupful throughout the week when it remains an off-menu special.
The blood Viterale uses is fresh, with a USDA stamp across the lid. He spent over a year seeking a purveyor who would sell it, finally sourcing it from a distributor in Hunts Point, where it is typically purchased for the production of boudin noir (blood sausage).
During my first encounter with the infamous pudding, I had just enjoyed a bowl of a firm chickpea pasta tossed with roasted garlic cloves, artichoke hearts, plump capers, and shaved bottarga. When Viterale offered a sample of his favorite dessert from childhood, I wasn’t sure I was willing to exchange those flavors for the uncertain pleasure of a goblet of pig’s-blood pudding.
Since Ornella first opened a year ago, the restaurant’s primary inspiration and focus have been the unique flours (chickpea, chestnut, buckwheat) that Viterale’s miller father experimented with making in Rofrano. And the sanguinaccio is a newer addition that isn’t mentioned anywhere on the menu. So why now?
“I am lucky to have customers who like to try new things,” says a smiling Vitarale. He says he’s celebrating the resurgence of snout-to-tail cooking: “I don’t think you can serve such unique dishes just anywhere,” he explains. “If all you offer is Italian-American dishes, that’s the clientele you attract … which is fine. But now that people know me, they expect me to play around and try different things.”
But even if the sanguinaccio is new at the restaurant, the Viterale family has been making it for generations. When asked about his first memory of it, Viterale chuckles and throws a question back: “Do you recall the first time you had peanut butter? It’s like that for me. I’ve just been eating it forever.”
Viterale invited me to join him in his kitchen to teach me how to make the version he serves. Though his grandma’s recipe is the one from his childhood, he prefers a variation he learned from his aunt, Zia Nina, whose recipe comes from the Cilento region of Campania and includes milk, adding a creaminess that’s absent in his grandmother’s rendition.
In the back of the trattoria, Viterale carefully peels the lid from the white bucket containing five quarts of fresh blood. He then pours the glistening, thick crimson liquid into a pot as if it were no different than a can of tomatoes for a marinara sauce.
In a double boiler, he stirs in the melted chocolate and remaining ingredients, which blend together at a rapid boil that is gradually reduced to a simmer, creating a mahogany foam on top capped with the bright coil of an entire orange peel. The pudding simmers for five hours, cautiously watched and frequently stirred to ensure a smooth finish. It’s then chilled overnight.
We enjoy a batch Viterale prepared two days earlier that we scoop up with chiacchiere, a pastry traditionally served with sanguinaccio and enjoyed at Carnival time, made from strips of fried pasta dough sprinkled with powdered sugar. The sanguinaccio feels luxuriously velvety on my tongue, like an extremely dense yet creamy mousse. It does taste like dark-chocolate pudding, but a far richer version, with citrusy undertones that gradually grow into a slight, pleasant, bitter aftertaste.
Viterale was right: If he hadn’t told me beforehand, I’d have no suspicion of the unusual ingredient. And I can see why he brings a container home with him after work each evening.
Customers can get his sanguinaccio from now until Easter, when it will disappear again until next winter.
Earlier: More Good News for Pork Dorks