Iron Mountain Italian

Today the best porketta in town is at Bimbo’s. Deb Constantini says no one does pigs anymore (most places turned to smaller boneless roasts), but she still does a whole hindquarter. She goes down to Bimbo’s basement and does it herself with an oven built just for its purpose. No one else is allowed down there while she’s seasoning or cooking the pork. She won’t even let me down there to see the oven.

She does invite me to eat. The waiter brings us two glasses of beer and two porketta sandwiches, each wrapped in paper napkins on cocktail-sized paper plates. They come with the traditional accompaniments: whole slow-roasted garlic, golden pieces of pork skin and spicy little red peppers. The pork is peppery, spicy and melt-in-your-mouth delicious.

The porketta at Bimbo’s is so good we come back that night for pizza. Deb isn’t there—she went to Green Bay to shop, but her first cousin, Paula Wiegele, greets us. “Deb told me I can’t take you down to the basement,” she tells us, smiling but serious. We assure her we’re here for pizza, not the family secrets. The thin-crust pizza comes out at 6 p.m. on Fridays. We order the works—sausage, pepperoni, mushrooms and onions—and sit next to the bar so we can talk to Paula.

Like her cousin, Paula is classy, warm and talkative. She shows pictures of her kids—who are at school at Central and Michigan State—and tells us when her son comes home, he says, “Mom, I don’t care what you cook, but it’s got to be Italian.” She reveals a few of her secrets: how she rolls her gnocchi off her palms, and where she gets her beautiful skin and sparkling eyes. “My daughter asks that, too,” she says. “I tell her it’s the olive oil in the diet.

Northsiders drink olive oil, that’s why they look so young.” Not surprisingly, her specialty is aglio e olio, Italian for garlic and oil. Many Italian dialects have their own nicknames for the tongue twister sauce—in Paula’s family, they call it eh-oiy. She makes it with garlic, olive oil, anchovies. “But that’s as far as I’ll go,” she says. “They make it at some of the restaurants in town, but I won’t order it, because it’s not mine. I put a lot more things in it that make it awesome.” She’ll make two quarts of it for her son when he’s home, and it’s gone by morning.

Bimbo’s pizza arrives, sliced in little rectangles. It tastes otherworldly, but rustic and familiar. The crust is flavorful but so cracker-thin you’re convinced you’re eating something light. We want another as soon as we finish.

That seems to be true of all Bimbo’s food. People ask for seconds like they’re at home—Paula answers a call for “another boat,” and “two more porkettas with garlic and skins.”

We linger too long—the pizza chef took off her apron already. On the way back to the Super 8, like a perfect cosmic joke, the full harvest moon hits our eyes through the tops of the pines.

Lisa Carubini lives in a crisp white house on Sixth Street, the stoop painted cornflower blue and urns of flowers flanking the front door. Lisa, named after her grandmother Elisa Carubini, who kept kitchen in this very house, is petite and sweet. She’s one of the young Italian holdouts on Iron Mountain’s Northside, where, as the Italians passed on or moved away during the last two decades, many of the houses have become run down or turned into rental units. She invites me in for lunch.

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