The Cubans enjoy their suckling pig with mojo. One trendy New York restaurant turns it into confit; another uses red wine in the cooking. We suspect, however, that the legendary Alvaro Pedro prepared his grilled piglet in the Iberian peasant manner.
That's why the hamlet of Mealhada, in central Portugal, has won no small measure of fame. Pedro's suckling pig is a cottage industry.
The delicious leitoes, or piglets, are grilled to minimalist perfection with a comparatively simple stuffing of garlic, lard, salt and pepper, plus black pepper applied in a generous rub. The cooked-in black pepper, Portugal's legacy from the East Indies explorers, comes across with a mild zing both in the moist meat and the cooking juices. Grilling imparts a parchment-like crispness to the skin with no underlying fat to leave a tasty interior that peels away like Peking duck in rich slivers.
Although pigs have nibbled on plentiful acorns in the oak forests surrounding Mealhada since Roman times, it fell to Alvaro Pedro to discover the truffle hiding amidst all this bacon. Mealhada now boasts 40 Pedro-clones that shout at prospective customers from a variety of billboards, neon pigs and pig statuary.
He's definitely a candidate for sainthood. While much of Europe's rural restaurant architecture leans toward faux retro (Germany's forest huts, France's pseudo farm kitchens), Mealhada's building code seems inspired by Wal-Mart's big box.
At Pedro dos Leitos the main attraction arrives as a stack of chopped hunks of pork, bones and all, on a family-style platter. Meanwhile, the effervescence of the local white wine, probably a version of vinho verde, tickles the palate nicely when mingled with the peppery cooking juices.
At any given time there are usually 40 leitoes simmering over eucalyptus coals. Diners order their fare by the kilogram (2.2 pounds), abundant for our table of three.
Nobody seems to pay much attention to the other menu items.