A little over half a century ago, Domenico Coluccio and his two teenaged sons moved to Brooklyn from the mountainous region of Calabria in southern Italy. Here, they found a community of fellow expats who ceaselessly bemoaned the beloved foods from home they couldn’t yet find here – things like provolone and pannetone that today seem utterly commonplace. And in just that lies this story. Domenico heard the complaints and had a very simple idea – why not bring that stuff over here? And so he did, founding D. Coluccio and Sons in 1962 to import specialty foods to serve the Italian community in Brooklyn.
Last fall, Domenico’s grandson Louis Coluccio carried on the family tradition by opening his own place in Bay Ridge – A.L.C. Italian Grocery. We stopped by to chat with Louis and to try one of his house specialties, the porchetta sandwich with ‘nduja and crucolo cheese – in which a slice of orange brings together three generations of family history.
So Louis, what should we have today?
How about our porchetta sandwich? We make it with ‘nduja and crucolo cheese. It’s a really good sandwich.
Tell us about it.
When we opened the shop we knew we definitely wanted to have porchetta on the menu. I love porchetta. You know porchetta, right? It’s pork belly and pork loin rolled up, stuffed with herbs and spices, roasted really nice and slow, then sliced. It’s a classic Italian comfort food. It started in central Italy, but it’s really popular all over the country. People eat it at home, but a lot of the time traditionally you’d find it being sold as street food, from guys out on the streets with carts. They’d slice it really thin and serve it on a nice bread as a panino, with a little of the juice from the roasting pan. As a neighborhood grocery, we liked the idea of doing it that way, as a sandwich – something you can sit down and eat, or take with you back home or wherever.
Porchetta is a really simple food. It’s not complicated, but some people like to put their own stamp on it by playing around with the spices and herbs. We wanted to find a way to make our porchetta our own thing – to make it a little unique. The idea we came up with was to use slices of fresh orange along with a bunch of fresh herbs to season the meat.
Sometimes you might find citrus zest and that kind of thing in traditional porchetta recipes, but you’re not usually going to see whole slices of orange in there. We loved the idea. We thought it would work really well – bringing a nice kind of burst of fresh, sweet and tart citrus flavor into what’s otherwise a really rich, fatty, savory dish. We also liked it a lot because it ties in with our family history.
See, my grandfather, Domenico Coluccio, is from Calabria, in the southern part of Italy. He started out selling oranges for a living. Eventually, he came over here. He brought my father with him. My father was fourteen years old. There was this whole community of people from Calabria and all over Italy living in Brooklyn. All they ever talked about was the food from back home that they missed so much. They couldn’t get it over here. The talk never stopped – “Oh, provolone! I miss it so much.” Or, “Pannetone! I’d kill for a taste of pannetone!”
When he’d heard enough of it, my grandfather decided to start a business bringing in provolone and pannetone and all the other stuff for people from Italy who couldn’t get it here and couldn’t stop talking about it. He opened the shop in Bensonhurst about fifty years ago, in 1962, with my father and uncle – his sons. I grew up in the store. We lived right upstairs from the place. So this business has been the life my family has lived for three generations here in Brooklyn. We really liked the idea of finding a way to tie what we’re doing here into how this all started, with my grandfather selling oranges all those years ago in Calabria.
And so, we have oranges in the porchetta. Of course, we wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t really delicious too.
How do you actually make the porchetta?
So what we do with the porchetta is, we start with a nice piece of pork belly, and a nice piece of pork loin. Both come from Berkshire pigs. Berkshire pork is really juicy and flavorful – really nice. We rub each piece of meat with olive oil, garlic, fresh rosemary, fresh thyme, slices of orange and salt, and then we let them marinate overnight, to absorb as much of that flavor as they can.
The next day, we assemble it. We lay out the pork belly, then we lay out the loin on top of that. We spread out the garlic, rosemary, thyme and oranges – lots of them – across the loin, and then we roll them up, so you have this round cylindrical roast with the pork belly on the outside, and the pork loin with the herbs and oranges on the inside. Once it’s rolled, we tie it up and roast it really slowly over low heat for about five, six hours. We keep turning it, basting it while it cooks. The fat on the outside of the pork belly crisps up and gets really delicious. The fat on the inside part of the belly just melts and renders into the loin. The herbs and orange slices marinate and perfume and infuse the meat. Everything slowly becomes one.
When it’s done cooking, the belly, loin and seasonings have all kind of melded together. When you untie it, it all stays together – nothing starts to fall apart or anything. It’s a little crispy on the outside, and on the inside, it’s just juicy. The Berkshire pork has a really nice earthy flavor. The fat from the pork belly has an almost sweet kind of flavor that melts right into the loin and runs through the whole thing. The fresh herb flavors of rosemary and thyme and that fresh sweet, tart, juicy bite from the orange all balance the rich, fatty, pork, you know?
So that’s the porchetta. Next is the ‘nduja. ‘They say the name ‘nduja comes from andouille – the French sausage. Nduja is a classic Calabrian thing. It’s basically a kind of spreadable sausage made with really fatty pork and lots of hot, spicy, red Calabrian peppers. If you see the boot shape of Italy on a map, Calabria is where you see the foot of the boot, in the very southwestern part of the country. It’s pretty mountainous there. It’s traditionally a pretty poor region – lots of small farms, and lots of chestnut groves that have been used to graze pigs forever.
‘Nduja is something that probably came from necessity. It was a way to use and preserve all the parts of the animal. They used to make it with all kinds of leftover trimmings of pork. Now that’s it’s become a little more popular, they use some different like meat from the neck, along with fat. And then the peppers – in Calabria, peppers are a very important part of the cuisine. People love their peppers. They love them really hot. You’ll find those hot, spicy peppers everywhere in Calabrian cooking.
To make the ‘nduja, they grind up the pork meat and fat with salt and Calabrian sweet and hot peppers. That’s it. Then they put it in a casing and smoke it and cure it to let it dry out for a few weeks. Because of the fat and the peppers, you end up with a paste that never hardens as it cured, like most sausages do. It remains a kind of soft paste that you can spread on bread or whatever you want. It’s very meaty, very spicy, but not overpowering. It has a pretty intense savory, meaty, spicy flavor that adds a whole new layer to the earthy, almost sweet pork and herbs and orange of the porchetta.
The last thing on the sandwich is the cheese. For the cheese, we go to the north. We use crucolo, a cow’s milk cheese from an area right at the foot of the mountains in northern Italy. It’s aged for about sixty days, so it’s semi-firm. It’s got a buttery flavor, but it’s also really nicely grassy and floral with a little bit of tang. It’s a really nice cheese. It melts fantastic. The creaminess of it when it melts, and the grassy, floral flavors work with the herbs and orange in the porchetta to balances out the meatiness and spice of the rest of the sandwich.
The bread, we get from Il Fornaretto in Bensonhurst. You know that place? It’s been there forever. It’s one of the last of the old-school Italian bakeries – a real place, not a factory. It’s the bread we grew up on. You don’t get bread better than this – baked in a brick oven fresh every morning. It’s firm enough to hold up to the sandwich on the outside, but nice and soft so it absorbs just the right amount of flavor from the ‘nduja, porchetta and cheese to bring everything together on the inside.
When someone orders the sandwich, we cut the bread, spread it with ‘nduja, slice the porchetta and put it in there, then the cheese. It all goes in the oven for a few minutes to let everything melt together, and it’s ready to go.
So Louis, what about you? How did you end up opening up your own place here?
When I was growing up, my grandfather and my father and uncle were running the store in Bensonhurst. Like I said, we lived right there. That was my life. Everything was about the store. It was a neighborhood grocery store. We all knew everyone who came in personally. They knew us. Everyone was on a first name basis. It was a real neighborhood place. I loved everything about it. There were places like that in every neighborhood, and it had been that way forever, but that idea of the neighborhood grocery got away from us all I think. You don’t see that much anymore – a real neighborhood place where everyone knows each other by their first names. It got too generic, too impersonal in most places.
Of course, my father’s store is still going. It’s a great business. I could have stayed there, but I guess I wanted to take a chance at doing my own thing. I wanted to feel that entrepreneurial spirit that my grandfather and father experienced when they opened their place fifty years ago. It’s completely different than coming into something that’s already established. My father comes in and checks up on me here, and I love that. I think he wanted me to experience what he experienced when he was my age – that whole thing of opening up your own shop and doing everything from scratch.
What we’re doing here isn’t all that different from my father and grandfather’s place. It’s definitely in the same spirit. I wanted to do my own version of the old neighborhood grocery, where there’s always a conversation going on about the products, the neighborhood, whatever. My wife and I live here in Bay Ridge. We love the mix of old and new here. There are a lot of Italian, Polish, German and Scandinavian families that have been here forever, and there’s a new generation of people coming in too. We wanted to give the neighborhood a place to come in and grab a homemade meal, some really great unique imported items from Italy, or local products like milk from upstate New York.
Where my grandfather and dad and uncle really specialized just in imported Italian things, here we’re really open to all the great new stuff being made here in Brooklyn today too. This whole artisan thing isn’t anything new. People have been doing it forever. Italians especially. The whole thing that people love about Italian food is that everything is made by hand, from scratch, with the most amazing ingredients. It isn’t new at all. I think the whole ‘made-in-Brooklyn’ thing is just the next stage of that. We like to call those new Brooklyn things ‘Italian-style’ products, because they’re made with passion, with love. That’s what old-school Italian is all about too. So of course we’re going to carry that stuff here too.
A.L.C. Italian Grocery is located at 8613 3rd Avenue, between 86th and 87th, in Bay Ridge.
Photography by Morgan Ione Yeager. All rights reserved.