First Look: The Iberian Pig

A taste of Spain in Decatur

I’ve spent a lot of time in Spain, mainly in Sevilla. My favorite restaurant there is Casa Salva, a hole-in-the-wall near the Museo de Bellas Artes. It’s been a few years since I visited, but it was open only 1-6 p.m. and the menu was mainly a list of specials that changed daily.

The Spanish love of ham becomes clear as soon as you gaze through restaurant windows anywhere in Spain and see hams festooning the ceilings. But it was at Casa Salva that I began to see the true dimensions of that love. The owner often came to my table and – no joke – recited the pedigree of the ham he was featuring that day. He told me where the pig was raised, on which side of a certain mountain, what it ate and how the ham had been cured.

So, it’s no surprise that I was excited to visit the Iberian Pig (121 Sycamore St., 404-371-8800) in Decatur. It takes its name from the famous black Iberian pig that is the source of arguably Spain’s finest ham. The restaurant has been opened by Federico and Stephanie Castellucci, the brother-sister team who's parents opened the three popular Sugo restaurants that specialize in mainly Italian and Greek food. The restaurant’s managing partner and chef is Chad Crete.

As the recent closing of Cuerno in Midtown demonstrates, Spanish restaurants don’t seem to do very well in Atlanta, despite the epidemic craving for tapas. So, the Castelluccis have gone out on a limb to some extent.

Their competition includes Noche, Krog Bar, Eclipse di Luna and Loca Luna. Like them (and unlike Cuerno), the Iberian Pig is not attempting to adhere strictly to Spanish dishes. Unlike most of them, though, the Pig is preparing more complex main dishes, most of which have little connection to Spain. There’s not even a paella on the menu of main plates, for example.

The restaurant is located in the space vacated by Sage, and few changes have been made in the dark, woody interior. Here’s a slight annoyance: The restaurant is lit with overhead lamps whose warm, firelike light is about the same color as the menu’s. This makes the menu quite difficult to read and our server furnished us with a flashlight.

We visited on the second day of operation and the restaurant seemed to be operating smoothly. Federico Castellucci was working the floor big-time, his voice sometimes booming so loudly you could hear him on the other side of the room.  His enthusiasm is charming and he excitedly pressed several of his favorites on us to try. In such a situation, it’s difficult to give honest feedback, for which he and the server asked frequently. But that’s why God created critics, I guess.

Our food was a mixed success. Most of the defects require minimal tweaking. What was not defective in any way was the restaurant’s signature jamón Ibérico. You’ll pay $14 for a plate of it or you can pay $17 to include it on a plate of three different meats, as we did. We ordered it with some Serrano ham, which is primo itself and provided a good comparison to the Ibérico.

Although the menu doesn’t say so, the restaurant is featuring the particular jamón Ibérico that is from pigs whose diet is almost exclusively acorns, according to Castellucci. Whatever, it is delicious – slightly sweet with an explosive salty note here and there, and an almost buttery texture. The Serrano was very good and the plate also included some sliced salchichon (a cured sausage), olives, a few fig slices and a chunk of Manchego cheese for which we paid $4 extra. Comparing the jamón Ibérico to the Serrano reminded me of the way the owner of Casa Salva insisted I make taste comparisons of several expressions of perfection.

I have to mention that the ham was served with some toasted bread and an aioli infused with espresso. It works.

The tapas here are not really tapas. They are medias raciones – larger than the few bites of real tapas – and are obviously meant for two or more. The portions, in fact, are so large that we were more limited than we hoped in sampling the menu.

Probably my favorite tapa was the octopus, but I have to qualify that. The octopus is not the usual baby octopus you find on Greek menus. Here, it is a sizable chunk of a large tentacle that has been braised for hours and then grilled until slightly charred. I’ve never had any come close to it in Atlanta. Unfortunately, though, the restaurant weirdly anoints it in barbecue sauce. I’m talking regular Georgia barbecue sauce. The sauce isn’t bad but it seems like a strange choice. I’d rather have olive oil and a squirt of lemon. The octopus is served with an inedibly huge portion of crunchy, fried potatoes.

Castellucci insisted we try the eggplant fries, which were served with a spicy red-pepper aioli. They were crunchy and creamy, but I’d definitely head to the more interesting tapas next time. He also insisted we try a dish of dates wrapped in Benton’s bacon and stuffed with a bit of Manchego cheese and walnuts, then served over the traditional tomato-based sauce served with patatas bravas. Sorry, but this did not work. Dried dates and tomato sauce do not mix well in my mouth.

Wayne insisted we order the mixed salad – field greens with figs, Serrano ham, papadews stuffed with mahon cheese, piquillos, pickled red onions, all drenched in a sherry vinaigrette. The salad offsets the problem we’ve had in Spain before – finding something green to eat with the mainly heavy food.

The oddest and best dish we ordered after the ham was an entrée dish of chittara pasta tossed lightly with carbonara sauce, bacon, fresh cream and slow-roasted goat. The dish was topped with a poached egg. I’m not a big fan of goat, usually finding it too gamy, but Castellucci included this dish in his sales pitch and we, to our pleasure, went for it.  The goat was not the least bit gamy. In fact, I don’t think I would recognize it as goat in a blind test. Definitely try it.

For dessert, I ordered classic churros, dusted with cinnamon and sugar and served with a cinnamon-chili-infused chocolate sauce. Nice.

There is much more to explore here. Just realize the portions are gigantic, despite the rather low prices. Retain control of your ordering or you’ll not be able to try all that you want.