If there were such a thing as a patron saint of heritage pork, Lidia Bastianich would be it.
She’s not the only high-powered celebrity chef to make a pilgrimage to Paradise Locker Meats in Trimble, Mo., a family-owned, full-service butchering plant in a rural community of 646 residents 25 miles north of downtown Kansas City on Missouri 169.
But patronage by her far-flung restaurant empire — which includes Felidia, Becco, Esca and Del Posto in New York City, restaurants in Kansas City and Pittsburgh, as well as Eataly food halls and assorted other partnerships with her son, Joe Bastianich, and chef Mario Batali — has created a robust market for heritage pork.
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Heritage pork is a deeply marbled cut from Red Wattle, Berkshire and Duroc breeds raised on farms in Kansas and Missouri. At Lidia’s Kansas City, the heritage pork appears on the menu as pork osso buco, a 16-ounce porterhouse pork steak, a Saturday porchetta special and a porchetta hash served at brunch, to name a few.
Paradise pork is distributed by Heritage Foods USA, a New York City-based farm-to-table distributor. Founder Patrick Martins signed Bastianich’s chefs on as its first customer in 2005. “Basically the heritage breed movement would have never started without those few orders,” he says.
The ripple effect of that purchasing decision has been powerful.
By 2015, Paradise’s Fantasma family — Mario and Teresa and their sons Louis and Nick — had added 10,000 square feet to their facility. For Heritage, Paradise processes 10,000 hogs a year and ships 1.5 million pounds of finished product to 150 restaurants across the country.
“I remember the first time we went to the restaurant to eat and Lidia was walking around,” Louis Fantasma recalls. “We introduced ourselves saying, ‘We cut meat for your restaurant.’ And she said, ‘Oh, no! You cut meat for all of my restaurants.’ ”
Paradise supplements its heritage breed product list with cuts of American Wagyu and dry-aged Akaushi beef, lamb raised by Central Grazing Co., turkey raised by Good Shepherd Poultry Ranch, goat and smoked sausages, hams and slab bacon cured in the new smokehouse.
Locally, the products are sold under the Fantasma’s Finest label available at their retail market in Trimble, to local chefs through Arrowhead Specialty Meats and to consumers through home delivery by local dairy producer Shatto Milk.
“Kansas City is probably one of the best places to eat meat in America, not only for the taste but for the sustainability. That’s a big statement, and Paradise is a big reason why,” Martins says.
But even as the Fantasmas rub elbows with some of the most famous chefs in the country, they remain humble, blue-collar butchers who save up to eat in the very restaurants they supply.
“Being grounded and family-owned is one of the things I think chefs and customers like about us,” Louis says. “We’re a real, small-town story that’s not just a story.”
Creating a supply chain
When Dan Swinney started at Lidia’s Kansas City as executive chef more than 18 years ago, he needed to track down a list of ingredients essential in re-creating Bastianich’s rustic yet refined signature dishes, many drawn from her childhood in Pula, Istria, now Croatia.
“I had a big list of products that I hadn’t seen or didn’t know where I would get in Kansas City,” Swinney recalls. “But slowly, over time, we got the things we needed in the quantity needed.”
The list included broccoli raab, Gorgonzola dolce, heirloom tomatoes and pork. Even arugula — now ubiquitous in grocery store produce aisles — was not readily available in the late 1990s as Bastianich began scouting for a location in Kansas City, her first restaurant outside of New York City.
On Tuesdays, Swinney receives a text from Heritage Foods USA asking for his weekly order. The company not only serves as a link between farmer, butcher and chef, it also ensures the animals have been raised humanely on antibiotic-free feed in outdoor pens. The breed and farm are listed on each label for traceability.
Every Tuesday night, Louis Fantasma pores over a spreadsheet marked with tabs for the various restaurants Paradise serves. His butchers cut fresh on Wednesday and Thursday, and the meat is delivered to Lidia’s Kansas City each Friday morning. Chefs around the country receive their orders the following Tuesday.
Despite its success with chefs, Paradise is not well-known in its own backyard.
“We’re probably the least good at selling ourselves,” Louis says with a shrug one day while eating a Paradise ground pork burger at KoZak’s Laketown Grill in Smithville. “Still, it’s a great time to be a smaller meat processor in the U.S.”
The term “meat locker” — a place that processes meat for individuals — is probably unfamiliar unless you’re a hunter or have ordered meat direct from a farmer. In the beginning, the Fantasmas processed meat for local farmers and relied heavily on the bounty of deer season to afford improvements in the plant from year to year.
As the family added chefs and began shipping over state lines, they needed to become a USDA-certified facility. Mary Switlik is the onsite food safety coordinator, and it requires 35 employees to slaughter, process, package and ship.
Based on what ends up on the plate, Paradise is keeping its end of the bargain. “These are the most demanding chefs in the world, and we never issue credits or lose accounts,” Martins says.
Shaping the future
On an unseasonably warm September afternoon, restaurant staff from Lidia’s Kansas City picks up Bastianich at Kansas City International Airport and whisks her to Trimble.
As she enters the weathered barnwood-paneled retail store lined with refrigerator and freezer cases, the extended Fantasma family — including Louis’ daughter Lydia — is there to greet her on her first visit.
Also waiting in the wings to accompany her on a tour of the processing plant are Boys Grow executive director John Gordon and several members of the program, an agricultural and entrepreneurial agricultural enterprise for urban boys and a favorite Kansas City charity Bastianich supports with an annual fundraising dinner.
The tour includes a look at the plant and a visit to the pen where pigs wait for slaughter.
“Pigs have a very sensitive stomach. You have to be really careful or they get sick, so we used to cook these big pots of greens and watermelon rinds,” she tells Boys Grow tour members.
“Well, you know, when you take care of them, they taste good,” Mario Fantasma adds.
“This is what it’s all about,” Bastianich adds as she stands before the pigs scheduled for slaughter the next day. “I grew up with it. When I didn’t find the quality I wanted, I went looking for it. More people need to see what it’s all about: honest food. And good food. Not processed food.”
As chefs leave the Bastianich restaurant empire to strike out on their own, heritage pork is poised to move from high-end restaurants into mainstream quick-serve restaurants. Mark Ladner, the first chef to use Paradise pork at the posh Del Posto, is currently working on Pasta Flyer, which will, according to its Facebook description, be “a fresh, healthful, gluten-free pasta bowl concept that takes the warmth of grandma’s cooking into an animated, quick-service setting.”
Despite the restaurant’s lower price point, Martins says, Paradise’s heritage pork will be on the menu. “It is definitely a little bit more of an investment, but quality and sustainability carries a certain value,” he says, adding that it could be a “game-changer” for Paradise.
Sustainability also requires looking beyond the popular cuts like shoulders, loins or chops and to find uses for all parts of the animal.
Like lard, which Paradise has so far found hard to collect and unprofitable to ship.
“Lard is coming back in vogue,” Bastianich says. “Back fat is lard, and that was very precious when I was growing up because it would feed people for the whole winter.”
Or cracklins, the little crunchy, bacon-y bits called ciccoli that are typically served on salads, pizza or bread. Couldn’t they be packaged and sold to chefs?
“Restaurants and chefs are looking for new things,” Bastianich says. “These connections have to happen.”
Jill Wendholt Silva is The Star’s James Beard award-winning food editor. She is also restaurant critic and curator of the Chow Town blog. Reach her on Twitter at @kcstarfood or @chowtownkc or on Instagram at @chowtownkc.
Lidia Bastianich will arrive in Kansas City on Thursday to host the Carnevale Di Venezia celebration at Lidia’s Kansas City, 101 W. 22nd St., from 5 to 9 p.m.
Carnevale di Venezia is an annual festival held in Venice — and throughout Italy — known for the guests’ use of ornate masks.
Lidia’s executive chef Dan Swinney has created a four-course celebration dinner for $50, with an optional wine pairing for $30. Tax and gratuity not included. Call 816-221-3722 for reservations. Lidias-KC.com
Lidia’s Pork Osso Buco
Makes 12 servings
For the pork:
1 sprig fresh rosemary
1 sprig fresh thyme
2 fresh or dried bay leaves
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup finely chopped onions
1 cup shredded carrots
1 cup finely diced celery
Salt, to taste
3 whole pork shanks (3 to 3 1/2 pounds each), cut into 4 pieces
Freshly ground black pepper
All-purpose flour, for dredging
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup carrot juice
1/2 cup celery juice
2 cups canned crushed Italian plum tomatoes
4 cups chicken stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth
For the risotto:
2 quarts water
1 cup diced (1/4-inch) carrots
1 cup diced (1/4-inch) onions
1 cup diced (1/4-inch) celery
2 fresh or dried bay leaves
1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
1 1/2 cups pearl barley
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
For the gremolata:
Zest of 2 lemons (yellow part only, without the underlying white pith), finely chopped
1/4 cup fresh Italian parsley leaves, finely chopped
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
To make the osso buco: Tie the rosemary, thyme, bay leaves and cloves together securely in a 4-inch square of cheesecloth. With a vegetable peeler, remove the zest (yellow part of the peel only) from the lemon in wide strips. Do the same to the orange. Squeeze the juice from the orange and reserve separately.
In a wide, heavy, nonreactive casserole large enough to hold the shanks, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook, stirring occasionally, until wilted, about 4 minutes. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil, carrots, celery and the cheesecloth bundle of herbs. Season lightly with salt. Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes.
Meanwhile, pat the pork shanks dry with paper towels. Tie a piece of kitchen twine securely around the perimeter of each piece of shank to hold them together during cooking. Season with salt and pepper and coat with the flour, shaking off any excess. Divide the vegetable oil between two large, heavy skillets and heat over medium heat. Add the shanks to the skillets and cook, turning once, until well browned on both sides. (Alternatively, the shanks can be browned in batches in a single skillet.)
Add the browned osso buco to the casserole with the vegetables. Add the tomato paste, stir it into the vegetables, and cook, stirring occasionally and turning the shanks once or twice, for 10 minutes. Add the wine and bring to a boil, then add the reserved orange juice, the carrot juice, celery juice, and the orange and lemon zest. Bring to a vigorous boil over high heat and boil for 10 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes, reduce the heat to low, and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes.
Stir in 1 cup of stock. Cover and simmer over low heat, adding stock to keep the level of liquid in the casserole the same, until the shanks are tender, about 1 1/2 hours. Rotate the pork shanks in the casserole as they cook.
To make the risotto: In a large saucepan, bring the water, carrots, onions, celery, bay leaves and olive oil to a boil. Stir in the barley and cook until tender but still firm, about 20 minutes. Drain the barley and set aside.
To make the gremolata: Toss the lemon zest, parsley and garlic together in a small bowl until blended and set aside.
When the pork is tender, remove it from the casserole and cut off the strings. Pass the cooking liquid through a sieve, pressing hard on the solids to remove as much liquid as possible. Return the meat and sauce to the casserole and bring to a boil. Check the seasoning and keep the pork warm over low heat.
To finish the barley, heat the butter in a large, heavy skillet over medium-low heat. Add the barley and cook, stirring often, until it is heated through and coated with butter. Season with salt and pepper.
Serve some barley and two pieces of the pork on each plate, sprinkling the pork with the gremolata.
Per serving: 1,117 calories (60 percent from fat), 75 grams total fat (24 grams saturated), 205 milligrams cholesterol, 33 grams carbohydrates, 79 grams protein, 433 milligrams sodium, 7 grams dietary fiber.
Source: Heritage Foods USA