The Food Chain

Matt Greco Goes Wild for Oliveto’s Charcoal-Grilled Squab

The charcoal-grilled squab cooked in duck fat and Castelvetrano olives from Oakland's Oliveto.
The charcoal-grilled squab cooked in duck fat and Castelvetrano olives from Oakland’s Oliveto. Photo: Suzy Poling/Grub Street

Each week on the Food Chain, we ask a chef to describe a dish he or she recently enjoyed. The chef who prepared the dish responds and then picks his or her own memorable meal. On and on it goes. Last week, the team at NYC’s Torrisi Italian Specialties sang the praises of Matt Greco’s lamb pastrami at Char No. 4. Where was your last mind-blowing meal, Matt?

Who: Matt Greco, chef at Char No. 4
What: Charcoal-grilled squab
Where: Oliveto, Oakland
When: June 2009

“My wife and I got married in the Bay Area last year, and we had our reception at Oliveto. I’d been there a few times before, introduced myself to the chef [Paul Canales], and it was perfect. We had the reception in the private dining room, just us and our family. The squab was a very simple, seasonal dish — as far as a garnish goes, it wasn’t what mattered. Squab has very rubbery skin, and if you don’t cook it right it can be gross. But it was perfectly cooked. It’s not like steak when you can get it your way — squab has one temperature that’s right, medium-rare to medium, and it was perfect. It had this great charcoal flavor that went well with the meat. It was really nice, really simple, and just done really well.”

Oliveto chef Paul Canales explains the dish:

“Pigeon is the only bird that never leaves our menu, regardless of season. It is a rare bird in that it takes to almost any cooking method. While we probably charcoal grill it most often, we alternately stuff, pan-roast, oven-roast, fry, braise, poach, and steam pigeon to equally delicious ends.

Philip Paine’s pigeons, or squab if you like, are the epitome of what a culinary pigeon should be and rarely is: voluptuous, rich in flavor, silky in texture, and when properly cooked crispy glassy skin that yields to tender, juicy pigeon goodness. This result is no accident or trick of modern gastronomic or industrial animal husbandry technique. It is the outcome of sheer passion bordering on obsession on the part of Philip Paine!

“To start with, Philip doesn’t think of himself as a poultry meat producer, he considers himself a ‘bird fancier,’ and he knows the precise moment when a squab is really a squab, or young pigeon perfect for eating. It turns out that the perfect window for a culinary squab is when the ‘blood’ feathers are present. This is approximately a four-day window, usually between 28 and 32 days when the young pigeon is at its prime weight, size, and tenderness for out purposes. ‘Blood’ feathers are little red pinfeathers that appear under the wing during this time-frame. Too young, and the bird will be scrawny in ratio to meat-to-bone. Too old, and the bird will begin to toughen and the flavor becomes livery and gamey.

“In addition, Philip has his own run at the plant where his pigeons are processed, ensuring a super clean product that gets to my kitchen within an hour. So, from the start, we are working with a superior pigeon. Suffice it to say, when Philip Paine retires, I will no longer serve pigeon!”

Matt Greco Goes Wild for Oliveto’s Charcoal-Grilled Squab