The coppa di testa wouldn't have been so succulently creamy were it not for the brains.
Yes, brains. Pig brains, in fact, stewed with jowls and trotters, spices, orange peel, and aromatics, and then enrobed in gelatin and chilled. A thin slice of this "headcheese" lay surrounded by delicate carpaccio of lamb's tongue, curls of pungent air-cured pig's liver, cured pig's fat -- just the fat, ma'am -- and a terrine of pig's shoulder, spleen, and kidney.
These delicacies weren't meant to challenge but to delight. On January 11, Slow Food San Francisco sponsored "Dining from Head to Tail" at Incanto, an Italian restaurant in Noe Valley. The five-course, prix-fixe dinner had been prepared by Incanto chef Chris Cosentino and celebrated chocolatier Michael Recchiuti to honor the animals we eat by enjoying every bit of them.
The event was planned well before news broke about America's first case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, aka mad cow disease, says Bill Alber, head of the San Francisco "convivium" of the international Slow Food organization. But the organizers used the dinner to spread Slow Food's message about recovering our culinary traditions -- traditions, in the organizers' words, of "regarding cows as more than a collection of steaks encased in leather for making car seats ... [and] chickens as more than skinless breasts running around on drumsticks."
All the meats came from Prather Ranch near Mount Shasta. Owner Travis Potter, whose wife and kids were seated near us, announced that because of Prather's sustainable, cannibalism-free ranching practices -- which, since he also sells animals to the medical research community, must be documented scrupulously -- all the animals he raises are certified BSE-free.
Every dish that followed the charcuterie, from the crispy pig's ear and tripe salad to the lard cookies, was a reminder that what we now euphemize as "variety meats" sustained and satisfied our ancestors for centuries. The meal was also extraordinary. The best plate of the evening: two large ravioli stuffed with wild nettles and confit of beef heart and kidney -- the innards simmered in olive oil until they became as tender as long-cooked tongue -- in a clear, rich oxtail broth.
With the notable exception of Oliveto, few East Bay Californian and European restaurants have shown the enthusiasm for offal that San Francisco cooks increasingly do. Not surprisingly, then, the best places to dine on tripe, kidney, intestine, heart, cheeks, and oxtail are still our local Chinese and Mexican restaurants. Free of European Americans' learned disgust, first-generation immigrant cooks -- who probably grew up closer to the sources of their food -- still treat these cuts as if they're just another delicious part of the beast, with the care and respect they deserve.