Iberian Pig & Double Zero switcheroo delights tastebuds
It’s no secret whatsoever that the Castellucci Hospitality Group is my favorite restaurant posse in town. I have long been a devotee of The Iberian Pig, a place that I would argue basically launched the foodie revolution in downtown Decatur. It took me a little longer to hit up the Castellucci’s less local endeavors at Sugo and Double Zero. Even though Double Zero is less than an hundred feet outside the perimeter, psychologically, I resisted. But I have come to think of all three restaurants as home, and the Castelluccis as part of my extended family.
So when I was savoring my Barrel Aged Negroni at Double Zero one Friday after work a few weeks ago and Chad Crete, the Great Oz in the kitchen, came bounding out to deliver a hug and the big news about CHG’s April Fool’s event, I was immediately psyched. DZ and The Pig were going to swap plates for the night? Count me in! The only hard part was deciding which restaurant to cast my lot with for the evening. I decided on The Iberian Pig because I wanted to see all the staunch Decatur-only diners have their minds blown by the Double Zero fare.
1. Drink: Barrel Aged Negroni for me, and an Iberian Old Fashioned for my wife. These two signature cocktails start smooth and finish big. My Negroni represents well for DZ, showing the dedication with which their drinks are crafted. Ask head mixologist Chris Dobson to tell you about how he actually lost his girl to save the barrel. My wife’s Old Fashioned utilizes the top note of the theme at The Pig, a bacon-infused rye. A bit of orange peel in each, and regal hunks of block ice unite them.
2. Small Plate: The Lamb Polpettine is our favorite starter at DZ. Crispy on the outside with insides that fall apart in your mouth, these meatballs are settled on a pile of tomato jam and mozzarella like they own the place. The Pig’s equivalent is the Albondigas, made of wild boar sausage. Mr. C., the founding father Castellucci, is so in love with meatballs that he requires them on all the menus. In fact, the weekend The Iberian Pig opened, he could be seen handing out meatballs on Decatur Square, chatting up strangers who were easily coaxed in after that first bite. The meatballs are a classy take on a classic comfort food, understated on the plate but explosive on the tongue.
3. Big Plate: Maiale alla Sorrentina is more fun to eat than it is to say, and a DZ staple that truly is a mouthful. An absolutely perfect fit with The Pig, this is a pork tenderloin wrapped with pancetta. The meat is tender and juicy, but I think the white bean cassoulet actually steals the show. When Chad is at his best, the menus offer something savory and familiar, which the plate itself then knocks down with food so specific and delicate that you know you can’t make it at home. I’ve made white beans at home. They don’t taste like this, threaded through with golden raisins and creamy without getting mushy, even though they’ve got the weight of major pork on their tiny shoulders.
4. Small Plate: We got the Lamb Ribs once we realized that the DZ menu was getting an unfair advantage in our coursing. Don’t think for a minute that The Pig has to stake its reputation on pig alone. The lamb ribs are coated with kalimotxo, or cocavino, a drink made of half red wine and half cola-based soda. They fall right off the bone and ought to be eaten with a spoon. For all that favor, the rice grits still manage to hold their own by cutting the sweetness. The parallel dish at DZ is a Pork Belly Risotto, which was also available at The Pig that night, and has hints of root beer in the glaze.
5. Small Plate: We went for the Polipo once we discerned we ought to make room for some greenery in our meal. This is a dish I’d never ordered at DZ, and I think many people stay way from octopus because it is so easy to do wrong. But trusting in Chad as we always do, this cross-grain long-cut of tentacle proved completely edible. The dish treats it almost like lobster, grilled to perfection and surrounded by bright vegetables, sunchoke and asparagus that are doing some work and not just looking good on the plate.
6. Palate Cleanser: CHG really puts the emphasis on hospitality, and so it was charming but not too surprising when one of the charcutiers that my wife had been chatting up came over between courses with a special little something he thought up just for us. It was a tiny plate with two perfect triangles of Manchego cheese, one of the staple cheeses of The Pig’s menu, artfully crossed over a zig zag of blackberry and pepper puree. It cleanses the palate by refreshing it, not deadening it. A great last bite before the overindulgence of dessert.
7. Dessert: If I had one complaint about the menu mash-up, it was that there was no dish signifying the unity of the two restaurants. They have a lot in common, as I’ve tried to show here. This is all just to say, of course, we ordered two desserts, the gelato trio from The Pig and the DZ Chocolate Cake. Both are excellent, and the dulce di leche paired particularly well with the cake, though the fig and sherry flavor did also. The bold pistachio gelato stood alone. It was all of a piece in its wonderful sweetness, but nothing cloying.
The Castelluccis are sophisticated people, but they are not pretentious. So it goes with their menus, and with their hospitality. They are wise to trust Chad Crete to conjure their ideas into plates, and diners would likewise do well to step outside Decatur Square and see what else Chad can do. I hope CHG finds many more occasions for such menu switcheroos, as this event no doubt won them many converts from one restaurant to another. Perhaps they can get Sugo into the mix next time, as one of the highlights of our night was the surprise delivery of our dessert by Mama Castellucci herself, who can usually only be found at Sugo. Each restaurant stands strong on its own, but at the heart of CHG is a family as dedicated to a good time as they are to a good meal. Watching them all blend together on April Fool’s Day was no joke.