The Italian fatback finds its way onto salumi plates, burgers and tacos across the US
Fatphobes had better fasten their seatbelts: lardo has landed.
Not to be confused with conventional lard, lardo is indeed fatback, but it’s fatback of a sublime nature. A national treasure in Italy, Lardo di Colonnata is a designated heritage food that’s made from cosseted hogs fed a diet of forest nuts, then cured for months with herbs and spices in special containers made of Carrara marble. After curing, it makes its tissue-thin and toothsome appearance on salumi plates around that country.
It’s not surprising, perhaps, to find it at home, at high-end restaurants here like Rare Steak and Seafood in Washington, D.C., where it’s part of the Pork Tasting appetizer, alongside paté and chicharrón. It’s another thing altogether to see it as a hamburger topper, as has been the case at Farm Burger in Atlanta.
Unctuous in texture and mild in flavor, it plays well with other ingredients. At Cultivar in Boston, the Heritage Headcheese is served with smoked peaches and lemon verbena-whipped lardo. At Seattle’s Staple & Fancy, it made an unexpected appearance in the Baby Beets and Watermelon Salad with lardo and pistachio. It has also made the menu at Le Farfalle in Charleston, S.C., where the special Stringozzi alla Spoletina pasta entrée was finished with lardo and tomato sauce.
It has found a niche in bread baskets, too. Belcampo Meat Co., a restaurant-cum-butchery with seven locations in California, offers bread service with lardo butter, while trendy RPM Italian in Washington, D.C., serves rosemary focaccia with whipped lardo. In a similarly starchy vein, at Speedy Romeo, a next-gen pizza emporium in New York City, whipped lardo tops coal-baked potatoes on the special Triple Crown catering menu.
Lardo has also turned up in some unexpected places, like B.S. Taqueria, which boasts “authentically inauthentic fare” in Los Angeles, of which the Clam and Lardo Tacos is a good example. The sophisticated Lardo-Wrapped Langoustine with white asparagus at Oriole, Chicago’s fine-dining mecca, is another. And somewhere in between is the Little Piggy Muffin from New York’s Dominique Ansel Bakery that’s served with a thin slice of lardo melted over the top.
BS Tacqueria’s clam and lardo tacos
The interest in lardo has an all-American cognate, as lard has come back into vogue in restaurant kitchens as well. For many chefs and bakers, of course, it never went out of fashion. Pastry chefs consider it a pie-crust prerequisite, many Southern cooks add a dollop to make their biscuits extra flaky, and it’s SOP at Mexican restaurants, where manteca, or lard, adds depth of flavor and mouthfeel to standards like refried beans and tortillas.
A new generation of operators has succumbed to its fatty charms, like popular, two-unit Bang Bang Pie & Biscuits in Chicago, which boasts that the “leaf lard for our signature pastry crust is rendered specifically for us by our friends at Smoking Goose.” Leaf lard is the highest grade of lard, taken from inside the loin, and it has an especially mild flavor. At nearby Big Jones, the menu pays homage to the people, places and history of the South with dishes like the award-winning fried chicken that is cooked in a combination of leaf lard, ham drippings and clarified butter.
Speaking of homages, Lardo, an OG of the Portland, Ore., food-cart scene, boasts that “it worships at the altar of swine and proudly celebrates its excesses.” The resulting swine-heavy sandwich list has included a Double Burger with lardo alongside the Pork Meatball Banh Mi and Korean Pork Shoulder Sandwich, all of which can be enjoyed with a side of Crispy Pigs Ears with fennel salt or Lardo Fries fried in rendered fatback.
Considering that animal fats have been well and truly stigmatized for the past 50 years, it’s ironic that lard, along with beef tallow, duck fat and chicken schmaltz, is currently climbing the charts on hipster menus around the country. It happens that it is the beneficiary of a unique confluence of factors, including the dramatic fall from grace of trans fats; the rise of the nose-to-tail movement, which has embraced previously discarded pig parts; and, especially, the rediscovery of animal fats by Millennials, especially Millennial parents, who prize their clean, additive-free labels.
There’s a kind of back-to-the-future vibe that would make their great-grandmothers proud.