words JOAN LANG  |  photography KARI HERER

Steak and Bones at Chaval. 
Chefs and co-owners of Chaval and Piccolo in Portland, Ilma Jeil Lopez and Damian Sansonetti.

The Sherry Luge and Spanish Sunday at Chaval.

For Ilma Jeil Lopez and Damian Sansonetti, a bone is much more than just part of a pork chop or a porterhouse steak.The married chef-owners of Piccolo and Chaval restaurants in Portland use bones as inspiration and ingredient in everything from charcuterie and pasta sauces to desserts. There’s even a drink: For the Sherry Luge (right), rich oloroso sherry is poured down a halved, freshly roasted marrow bone, once the diner has finished eating the marrow and is ready to wash it down with the cocktail, picking up the last traces of savory fat.

“I have to laugh at how popular ‘bone broth’ has become all of a sudden when people have been using bones to make stock and broth for centuries,” says Sansonetti. “I mean, how else would you make it?”

Bones add flavor and voluptuous body to a tremendous variety of foods in traditional cooking (see sidebar). And for a new generation of chefs like Sansonetti and Lopez, cooking with bones also represents a way to use every last bit of the locally sourced whole animals and fish they buy, a strategy that’s both economical and philosophical.

“Using the bones is the right way of respecting the animal,” says Lopez, who makes the desserts for both restaurants. She’s a willing collaborator, with products such as ice cream made using leftover Serrano ham bones and whoopie pies filled with whipped, sweetened marrow.

“Meat cooked on the bone just tastes better,” says Sansonetti—one of the signature dishes at Chaval is chicken braised on the bone coq au vin-style in red wine and served family-style for two or more)—but bones by themselves also have value. He grew up watching his Italian grandmother tossing sections of marrow bone from the butcher shop into her pasta sauce, then wiping them clean and giving them to her dog after every bit of goodness had been extracted—a full circle of thrift and flavor.

Now Sansonetti serves an appetizer of roasted marrow bones with celery and radish salad to enthusiastic guests at the couple’s first restaurant, Piccolo, which specializes in modern interpretations of Central and Southern Italian food. And the popular homemade cavatelli pasta is sauced with a rich lamb neck ragu that has been on the menu since day one.

At Chaval, which opened this past summer, there are more references to Lopez’s Venezuelan heritage, including tapas and cured and salted Serrano and Iberico hams. Maine lobster fideos (a kind of paella made with fine noodles) gets huge flavor from stock made with lobster shells, and there is often fromage de tête (head cheese), a time-consuming charcuterie specialty in which the whole head of a pig is brined, cooked, then picked apart and reassembled into a loaf held together by the collagen-rich bone stock created from the cooking process, which sets up into an aspic when it’s chilled.

But it’s in the nightly specials, chef’s choice Sunday suppers, wine dinners and other special feasts where bones really shine.

Weekend “Meat & Bones” platters might include steak or braised beef cheeks served with roasted marrow bones and a condiment like IPA-pickled onions or endive, black pepper and sherry compote, to add refreshingly spicy-sweet contrast to the rich fattiness of the beef and bones. The Sherry Luge idea emerged because customers were scraping at the bones to get out every last bite of the luxurious marrow.

A whole lamb from North Star Sheep Farm yields not
only chops and legs for roasting, but also lamb shanks and a whole braised neck for specials—“nothing is wasted,” notes Sansonetti.

Fish collars and frames, or skeletons, are arduously broken down not only for fumet and other stocks, but also to get at the marrow and spinal jelly inside, which is poached for a creamy, flavorful accompaniment to swordfish or tuna confit; the giant collar of a halibut has been used as a bone bowl to show off a preparation of the fish itself.

There’s an old saying that frugal cooks all over the world use every part of the pig but its squeal. And thus was born an amazing global appetite for tasty sausages, bacon and ham, lard, cracklings and more—a tradition Sansonetti and Lopez fully embrace.

“We love pork,” says Lopez. “We love finding ways to utilize it on our menus.”

As in cooked whole pigs’ feet, boned out and stuffed with the cubed meat, pistachios and spices. Lardo (cured pork fatback) in salumi assortments and as a seasoning/dressing in vegetables and other recipes. There’s that head cheese, thin slices of which might be draped over the carefully cleaned skull to make a dramatic presentation for a special party. Even the brains are used—they’re poached, whipped with olive oil and other seasonings and served as a kind of mayonnaise. Gelatin-rich stocks are used to bind and poach and flavor. And there are all kinds of blood sausages, including morcilla, boudin noir and black pudding.

“It’s very time consuming to break down a whole animal and turn all the parts into food, so we tend to use these products whenever and wherever we can,” says Sansonetti.

The chef adds that this whole-animal approach is inspiring for his kitchen staff, as a learning tool and even for recruitment—Chaval Sous Chef Kirby Scholl came in for a special dinner on a night off from another restaurant and never left. “It’s part of the whole mentorship thing, which is so important for young chefs.”

Which brings us back to the Serrano bone marrow ice cream. “I’ve always been really interested in savory desserts,” explains Lopez, who was nominated for a James Beard Award in the Outstanding Pastry Chef category in 2017. “It’s a real challenge, not only to use every ingredient, but also to achieve the right balance of sweet and savory elements in a dessert.”

Over the years, she’s experimented with using marrow, blood and bones in many dessert specials, including a bone-shaped filled shortbread in which marrow is baked into the cookie and the filling, and a mini whoopie pie with aerated sweetened marrow cream inside cake made with pig’s blood, cocoa and Calabrian chili. But it’s the Spanish-style pork sundae that makes her most proud.

For this much-lauded dessert, Lopez renders the marrow from inside the toasted bones of the Serrano and Iberico hams—a flavorful artisanal product much too valuable to waste any part of it—and infuses it into the milk base for the ice cream. Rendered ham fat is used to make a caramel sauce and the whole confection is topped with a reference point of frizzled Serrano ham.

That’s what you call making your bones.

58 Pine St., Portland
(207) 772-1110

111 Middle St., Portland
(207) 747-5307

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