Around the hostess stand, behind the open-face prep line—a glimpse of cured olives, bright red bell peppers, and cilantro pesto—past the glowing orange heat of a broad wood-fired oven, Kevin Fink is butchering a pig. This pig arrived frozen—Fink usually gets them fresh from a farmer in Aguila, outside of Phoenix—so he’ll get it down to its primal cuts and wait to smoke and cure the meat tomorrow. “Look at that,” he says, patting a cross section of pork shoulder with a glove-adorned hand. “That’s going to be delicious.”
The director of operations at Zona 78 will have to wait three months to find out just how delicious it’s going to be, as cured meats like this coppa are cooked by time and fermentation rather than the quickness of heat. In late October, Zona 78 became the first restaurant in Pima County—and maybe Arizona—to legally be able to serve cured and dry-aged meats made in house—in kitchen, that is.
As he begins to carve apart the primal cuts—using nothing but a butcher’s knife and a cleaver—Fink says, “We’ll break cuts into the coppa, jowl, the boston butt or pork shoulder, and then the picnic—the bellota once we cure it,” he says. “They call it the picnic because it’s a small cut of meat you can take on a picnic with you.”
With entrees priced in the $12 to $19 range—a pork chop butchered today will sell for $17—Zona 78 offers “casual concept dining,” says Fink. “But sometimes that hurts us, because people don’t realize what they’re getting for the price—something that was butchered in the kitchen and, in the case of the charcuterie, cured in-house.”
Indeed, Zona 78 has been sourcing locally before sourcing locally became a selling point. Their first location on River Road and Stone Avenue opened 11 years ago; the second spot, the place where pigs become prosciutto, opened in 2008 on Tanque Verde Road, just past Sabino Canyon.
“We were taking deliveries from local producers 11 years ago,” Fink says. Today, one of those producers is Sleeping Frog Farms, which has worked with the restaurant to develop a menu flexible enough to incorporate seasonal produce. In return, the restaurant invests in the farm through a CSA model, paying three months in advance for produce yet to be planted. Fink estimates this kind of investment meets 50 percent of the restaurant’s produce needs—and sometimes more. A few weeks ago Sleeping Frog Farms brought in 700 pounds of Asian pears. “We pickled some and poached some, took it back to them, and they sold it at the farmers’ market.” The restaurant doesn’t get a cut of sales—but they do get pears.
Back at the butchering table, as Fink swings a cleaver into the carcass, the kitchen doesn’t stop moving. On a prep table nearby, a sous chef arranges platters full of giant meatballs and drowns them in marinara sauce. Waiters call “corner” while bussers sort clattering silverware for the dishwasher. Although the charcuterie program is very much a cornerstone in the bustling restaurant, the restaurant continues to bustle around it.
With the help of waitstaff or cooks, Fink can butcher and cure two pigs over the course of a “very long 12-hour day.” Once he’s selected the cuts he’s going to cure, Fink adds three percent salt relative to the weight of the meat, plus sugar and any spice mixture he’s concocted. Initial curing happens in the refrigerator; after about seven days, he’ll rinse the meat, pat it dry, and move the cut to the curing fridge—the larder—where it’ll hang for anywhere from three weeks to a year. “In the case of a meat like pancetta [which will eventually be cooked], the cut is able to be used immediately; it just matures in flavor over the period of drying. It develops a complexity of flavor, with a much stronger umami note,” Fink says.
A cut like coppa—lightly seasoned and dry-aged, traditionally made from the shoulder or neck—will be cured for nine days and then aged for a minimum of 90 days. Although, “it’s more about a water activity level than a time level,” says Fink. In the curing room—a former walk-in fridge that now also holds bottles of red wine—“You want it to be 70 and 70. Seventy degrees and 70 percent humidity.”
“What’s exciting about this to me is that all our charcuterie is made from local, heritage pigs. That’s not something you find even in Italy anymore.”
Fink’s been working the restaurant business since he was 14—which might explain how he’s done so much by 29. He started as a dishwasher at Hacienda del Sol and later worked as an assistant manager at the original Zona 78 location. He got a degree from NAU in Hotel and Restaurant Management; after a stint at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in California and Noma in Denmark—once named the best restaurants in the U.S. and the world, respectively—Fink returned to Tucson and Zona 78.
But this time, to the kitchen. Although he’d had an interest in cured meats for years, it wasn’t until he met a dishwasher who’d gotten a degree from the UA Meat Lab that Fink started thinking about curing his own meats. “It was huge to have the accessibility to learn from someone who had all this fresh knowledge,” he says. Two years ago, when they started experimenting with cures at the restaurant and realized they were onto something good, Fink realized he needed an official stamp of approval. “There was no precedent for something like this.”
So he called the Pima County Health Department. Gary Frucci, a supervisor with the Consumer Health and Food Safety division of the Pima County Health Department, was happy to hear from Fink. “I’m very happy that producers are coming forward and taking the time to ensure they’re making a safe product,” Frucci says. “In the past, people would do this under the radar. What happens during a routine inspection is that if we see these processes happening, we have to cite them and tell them to stop until it’s safe.”
After talking to Frucci, Fink got to work on what became a 25-page Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HAACP) Plan. Although he had a basic understanding of the biology at work in fermentation, he says he learned “a ton” about water activity, crucial to controlling bacteria in a cure, and air flow—“which is often where most people go wrong when they’re curing at home.”
“Pima County has never approved a HAACP Plan for something like this,” says Fink. “We’re the first in Arizona, I believe, to be approved for shelf stabilization through fermentation, with no process of cooking involved.”
Frucci says that in the past two years, “We’re seeing more and more of these specialized processes—smoking for preservation, curing of meat products, drying things, making jerky. It’s become more common that people are talking about doing these on a smaller scale, at a restaurant, when before they were always done by a manufacturer on a larger scale.”
Now that Zona 78 is legally certified to produce charcuterie, the biggest challenge for Fink is sourcing pigs. Although he’s worked with a family farm in Aguila for two years, which provides the restaurant with six animals once every six weeks, the restaurant often sells a whole pig in as little as two weeks.
In-house curing is definitely a money-maker for Zona 78. Most restaurants pay $9 a pound for wholesale cuts of prosciutto and $7 to $12 a pound for salami. Fink paid $560 for the 260-pound pig currently sprawled on the stainless steel prep table; if he utilizes 70 percent of that weight—taking into consideration the considerable shrink that occurs during aging—he’ll end up with organic, locally raised cured meats that cost him $3.85 a pound.
“What’s exciting about this to me is that all our charcuterie is made from local, heritage pigs. That’s not something you find even in Italy anymore,” says Fink. His wife, Alicynn, has been living in Italy for the past year, studying food anthropology at the University of Gastronomic Sciences, so he’s had ample excuse to visit and sample cured meats at their source. “What’s so great about Italy is that you can hang [the meat] in your barn and it’ll be 70 and 70.”
Italian cuisine prepared in Italy also benefits from a long tradition of artisan production. That lesson hit home when Fink was 19 and doing an internship abroad at Tredici Gobbi, a restaurant in Florence. He asked why they didn’t make their own mozzarella in-house. “They said, ‘Well, there’s a guy down the road whose family has been making mozzarella for 500 years. Why would we try to make it here?’ That principle doesn’t exist here. You’re forced to outsource it or create it on your own.”
Indeed, in Italy, Fink says, the cuisine evolved “based on how far you could travel on your horse that day to collect food. We’re trying to do that here—to base our menu on what we can find in this local food shed.”
Which starts with a pig in the kitchen. ✜
Zona 78 Italian Kitchen. 78 W. River Road and 7301 E. Tanque Verde Road. 520.296.7878. Zona78.com.
Megan Kimble is the managing editor of Edible Baja Arizona. For the latest on food in Baja Arizona, follow her at facebook.com/meganekimble or @megankimble.
1 kilogram pork belly (skin on or off depending on what you want to use it for)
3 percent kosher or sea salt (30 grams)
2 percent sugar white or 3 percent brown (20 – 30 grams)
1 tablespoon black pepper
5 bay leaves hand cracked
½ teaspoon salt peter #1
4 sprigs fresh thyme (3 grams)
Put pork belly aside. Combine all other ingredients. Salt the belly with the mixture and apply it uniformly on all sides. Place belly in curing container, preferably plastic or ceramic. Place in refrigerator and let cure for four days and then flip belly. Remove from cure after 7 total days (9 days if the belly is thicker than 2.5 inches). Rinse belly of cure mixture and pat dry. Age belly in a cool, dry place for 2 days to 1 month to mature and intensify the flavor.
½ pound pancetta (ground or fine dice)
¼ pound smoked guanciale (Bacon will work as well, fine dice or ground)
2 ounces canola oil (for cooking)
1 teaspoon red chile flakes
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
1½ cups minced yellow onion
4 cloves garlic (crushed)
1 can (28 ounces) of San Marzano tomatoes (whole is preferable but they can be cut)
½ cup grated pecorino
7 ounces chicken or pork stock
7 ounces white wine
2 ounces extra virgin olive oil (for finishing)
Heat oil in a skillet over medium heat and add pancetta and guanciale to brown and slightly caramelize. Be careful not to burn or you will end with a bitter sauce. After pancetta is browned, add red chili flakes and black pepper. Cook for 10 seconds to open up flavor of spices. Add onion and garlic and cook on medium heat until tender, but not browned and dark. Deglaze with chicken or pork stock and white wine and reduce until 1/3 of original volume. Hand crush tomatoes into sauce and cook until the sauce tightens up; tomatoes will release quite a bit of water. Add pecorino and olive oil right before you toss the sauce with your pasta. Season with salt to taste (although you shouldn’t need any because of the cured meat). The olive oil has an amazing flavor in its raw state, which is why we finish with it. Serves 4.
Note: Spend your money on good olive oil, but never cook with good olive oil, as it will change what makes it great. You can easily substitute a blended oil or non GMO canola (grape seed).