I love Porchetta. I don’t mean the herb-stuffed roast pork sold by the roadside in Central Italy, though I love that, too. I mean the short-lived restaurant in Cobble Hill called Porchetta, especially when Jason Neroni was the chef. He amazed me with his chicken-liver mousse with fig jam, his orecchiette sauced with soppressata and pumpkin, his pork belly with mostarda and “melted” cauliflower, and his so-called pork porterhouse—a hunk of pig so rich and tender, it practically deconstructed itself into bite-size pieces as you watched.
But Porchetta ended badly for Neroni. He had a falling-out with the owner and landed in the slammer briefly for allegedly signing unauthorized checks. He was soon sprung, but the restaurant went kaput anyway, and he became the butt of blog jokes. Now Neroni turns up on Avenue B, in a small, two-room restaurant outfitted with junk-shop furniture and random pieces of art: a bride and groom smiling from a decoupaged wedding picture, a cast-iron seahorse, a dashboard Jesus—you get the picture. Long, elegant candles burn on every table and along the bar, which has no liquor license yet. Hooray for BYOB!
It’s not clear if there’s even much of a kitchen. Neroni and his assistant are always in view, working at two impromptu counters behind the bar. There, a deli slicer perpetually whirs, cutting razor-thin slices of Serrano ham. This hits the plate with some heady Manchego cheese and oil-soaked slices of bread, to make an appetizer ($7) almost biblical in its antiquity.
The name of the restaurant is so anonymous, it calls to mind several other places in the city, including Buffalo Cantina, Baby Bo’s Cantina, and Cosmic Cantina, but is Cantina just another tapas bar? Maybe so, because the headings of the menu are in Spanish, and the servings are small. Made up of seven selections, “Pinchos” (literally, “toothpicks”) is the largest section of the menu. There, in addition to the ham platter, you’ll find sublime pork croquettes ($9) that carry forward Neroni’s obvious obsession with pig. The formulation of these beauties has changed over the last few weeks. First, they were a pair of giant brown orbs filled with pulled pork and accompanied by a subtle pecan dipping sauce. Later, they were the size of marbles and mired in a garlicky alioli. Both rocked substantially.
There’s also a beet salad that, though competently prepared, makes you think of every other beet salad you’ve eaten in the last year. And if you go out often, there have been many. Much better is a radicchio salad ($8) with shavings of Manchego, dressed with a kinky pickle-and-olive relish. And speaking of olives, Neroni offers a small crock of spiced olives served warm, which sends the flavor into orbit. No tapas menu is complete without papas bravas (“brave potatoes”), and here they arrive mired in the same alioli as the pork croquettes—which is fine, except these spuds are rather cowardly, lacking the kick of spicy paprika.
Cantina is clearly a place for snacking, and if you snack long enough, maybe you’ll find that you’ve eaten an entire meal. To assist you in this endeavor, there are four platos that represent decent-sized hunks of flesh. Braised oxtail ($17) is perhaps the most formidable: several short bones presented in a ceramic pot, with a few peregrine tidbits of vegetable. An unexpected hint of mint enlivens this Spanish classic. Inevitably, pride of place goes to pork, and here Neroni offers another big hunk of it. Called “pork shoulder dulce de leche” ($16), the slab swims, but rather slowly, in a thick, beige pool of semi-liquid caramel, in which saltiness vies with sweetness for dominance. Happily, saltiness wins. Melting caramel in sauce is a science-chef trick, reminding us that Neroni succeeded Wylie Dufresne at 71 Clinton Fresh Food before he went to Porchetta.
There are a couple of other science-chef flourishes on the menu, including a pickled mustard-seed relish that accompanies a very tasty empanada of chorizo and cheese, and a curried ice cream that doesn’t weird you out when you taste it. One of the chef’s more formidable dishes carries over from AKA Café, an offshoot of 71 Clinton, that had a culinary and decorative aesthetic reminiscent of Cantina’s. Lamb tongue sandwich ($7) has been tinkered with over the last weeks, too, but in its best incarnation, it places thick slices of smoky sensory organ on good bread with radicchio, olive relish, and membrillo, which is Spanish quince paste. It’s like French-kissing a sheep.