The Pennington dining scene got a welcome jolt of energy on July 17 when The Pig + the Pit opened on North Main Street.
Acclaimed Atlanta restaurateurs Doria Roberts and Calavino Donati are the couple behind the new restaurant that has popped up in the space recently occupied by Eclair Cafe. The Pig + the Pit, with its imaginative and eclectic menu of “vegan BBQ and southern cuisine,” is open for take-out Thursday through Saturday from 11 to 7 and Sunday from 11 to 5.
Signature items include Chef Donati’s turkey poblano meatloaf with jalapeño tequila gravy and the Urban Reuben sandwich, made with hand-sliced pork shoulder rather than the traditional corned beef brisket. Which is not to say there isn’t brisket on the menu, because there is: in fact, The Pig + the Pit’s chopped smoked brisket, served with a choice of two sides, is one of the most popular items on the menu.
Roberts, the Pig + the Pit’s baker, counts mini sweet potato pies and cornbread tres leches among her specialty offerings.
Also featured on the menu are dishes like shrimp and grits, shrimp po’ boy and The Georgian, a sandwich featuring house-roasted turkey with peach poblano compote, greens, tomato and goat cheese on toasted ciabatta.
But perhaps most intriguing are The Pig + the Pit’s many vegan and vegetarian options, which are intended to appeal to meat eaters and non-meat-eaters alike. The blackeyed pea burger is housemade and can be ordered with or without cheese, while the Urban Reuben sandwich can be ordered with grilled tofu in place of pork shoulder.
Barbecued jackfruit or tofu can be ordered in place of meat in the meat and two sides platter, and the portobello mushroom dinner is served on a bed of dirty rice with sauteed green beans. Other vegetarian/vegan options include the roasted sweet potato sandwich and the blackeyed pea hummus appetizer served with chips.
Roberts and Donati say that since Roberts is a vegetarian and Donati is an omnivore, their menus always have options for all kinds of eaters. “Usually, when we go out, one of us is eating a salad,” Roberts says. “We wanted our restaurants to be more accommodating to all dietary preferences for that reason. Everyone is welcome at our table.”
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Roberts grew up in Trenton and a 1989 graduate of Princeton Day School. A basketball and softball star at PDS, she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1993 before heading south to Atlanta to pursue a music career. The singer-songwriter has released several albums and spent many years on the road, performing with the Indigo Girls, Sarah McLachlan, John Mayer and others.
While in Atlanta, she met her wife, Donati, an accomplished chef who opened The Roman Lily Cafe in Atlanta’s Fourth Ward in 1996, and later together with Roberts opened the popular sandwich shop Urban Cannibals with several Atlanta locations.
In 2008, Roberts took a break from her musical career to work together with Donati through their We Serve People Restaurant Group. With Donati as chef and Roberts as baker, the couple operated a number of dining venues in Atlanta, including Urban Cannibals, Madre + Mason (described as serving Latin American-Southern fusion cuisine) and Tipple and Rose Tea Parlor and Apothecary.
In April 2019, Roberts’ mother, who still lived in this area, suffered a stroke. After Roberts spent months commuting to and from Atlanta to help care for her mother, she and Donati decided that it would be best to shut down their Atlanta venues and move to Mercer County. They settled in the area in December.
As reported by Eater Atlanta in December, they had originally thought to port one of their existing concepts to this area, and Roberts says they spent the early part of 2020 scouting out locations in Mercer County. They even signed letters of intent to lease a couple of locations in the area — they don’t say precisely where.
In March, the pandemic hit, and the couple tabled their plans and waited to see how the crisis would affect the restaurant business.
Then a different kind of opportunity presented itself: the option to “pop up” in the Eclair Cafe space in Pennington. Eclair Cafe owners Ron Suzuki and Marie-Mathilde Laplanche still hold the lease to the space at 20 N. Main St. in Pennington, but they had closed their cafe early on in the pandemic, and by June had still not reopened.
They offered Roberts and Donati the use of the Eclair Cafe kitchen to launch a concept of their own without the risk of a long-term lease. They accepted the offer and quickly came up with the concept of The Pig + the Pit.
“We had done a little research and realized there wasn’t any Southern or Barbecue around, so we thought if we opened something in a kitchen, that’s what we would do,” Roberts says. “Both of us being in Atlanta for so long, it was a natural transition for us (to open that kind of restaurant.)”
Donati says the “omnivore” menu takes some inspiration from the couple’s own eating lifestyle. “Because we eat like this at home, it’s not challenging at all to find interesting ways to present (vegetarian and nonvegetarian) dishes with similar textures and flavor profiles,” she says. “I work with a lot of spice and have several proprietary blends, and that’s really the key to make sure vegans and vegetarians aren’t settling for flavorless substitutes.”
Roberts was not always a vegetarian, so she consults with Donati on the texture of the vegan and vegetarian dishes. They kitchen tested with whole food ingredients, like jackfruit, to see what worked best in the context of barbecue. The items that worked out best are the ones that have made it onto the menu.
Donati and Roberts planned the July 17 Pennington opening of The Pig + the Pit as a soft launch. “We thought, a nice little town, a nice little leisurely start,” Donati says.
Word of the new restaurant spread quickly on social media, however, and on their first weekend, they found themselves working hard to keep up with the large number of orders that were coming through their website ordering system.
“We definitely thought we would have a little more time to ease ourselves into the situation,” Donati says. “To see her open up the computer screen and just have a list of orders coming through and not stopping — it was definitely a surprise.”
It took them a few weeks to really get into a groove, but they have gradually worked out most of the kinks over their first month, well enough to expand open hours to four days a week from the original two. They do occasionally disable the ordering system if demand gets high, and when that happens, they encourage customers to keep checking to see when they are taking orders again.
High demand has also affected the way they have had to collaborate in the smallish kitchen of Eclair Cafe. Some days, Roberts has had to cede oven space over to Donati so there is enough room to prepare all the proteins they intend to serve that day.
“[On the first weekend], she smoked a lot of brisket, and somehow she still ran out of brisket, so she needed to make more brisket and she needed to use the ovens for chicken and some other things,” Roberts says.
No oven space meant no place to bake Roberts’ scones or sweet potato pies. But she says they have worked in small kitchens before, and have gotten good at making changes on the fly. When she can’t use the ovens, she makes no-bake treats like strawberry shortcake in a cup.
“We’re kind of used to having to switch gears and we’re not too precious about that kind of stuff,” Roberts says. “We’re both artists in that way. I’m a musician, and Chef Calavino’s an artist with food, and we just say, ‘OK, we have to move on to the next thing.’ We think on our feet pretty quickly.”
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Though Donati lived in a number of places growing up, she considers Atlanta her hometown. She is a self-trained chef who quit school at 17 to travel around the country, at one point settling in Key West for a year.
The Roman Lily Cafe, named for her grandparents Roman and Lily, has been described as a “trailblazing” restaurant by Atlanta lifestyle writer Richard L. Eldredge. The restaurant has been credited with helping to transform the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood of East Atlanta into a thriving community.
Donati’s grilled turkey poblano meatloaf with jalapeño tequila gravy was on her menu at her first restaurant. “It was the reason I had two-hour waits even though I opened in one of the most dangerous parts of town,” she says. “I’ve served it to the late Congressman John Lewis, and President Jimmy Carter…I’ve carried it with me to almost every concept I’ve had, and it will always hold a special place on my menus.”
Things were going well for Donati and Roberts up until the bottom fell out of the housing market in 2007. They say they lost everything in the housing crash, including the restaurant.
In 2009 they were able to make a return with Urban Cannibals Bodega and Bites, a soup and sandwich shop so modest they were pressing sandwiches on George Foreman Grills.
“We thought sandwiches and soup were good recession food, so we thought we would just do that and wait out the economy,” Roberts says. “That’s when I learned how to bake.” The kitchen then was about the same size as Eclair Cafe, which is one reason they have felt at home in Pennington despite the confined space.
As one might guess by the name, the Urban Reuben was on the menu at Urban Cannibals. The sandwich was so well regarded that it earned the duo a 2011 appearance on a Food Network TV show called Meat and Potatoes.
“We thought (the invitation) was a joke at first, but it turned out to be real!” Roberts says. “We were making all of our sandwiches on George Foreman Grills at the time, and actually used one for the show, but, at the end of the day of filming, the crew urged us to get an industrial panini press because ‘our lives were going to change.’”
The day after the episode aired, they went into the shop early so they could make extra pork shoulder in preparation for a crowd. They found that there was already a line down the street. “It was one of our most popular sandwiches for the seven years we had that space,” Roberts says.
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Roberts says her sweet potato pie is special to her because it is her mother’s recipe. “I called her on Thanksgiving 12 years ago for the recipe because it was my first Thanksgiving with Chef Calavino, and I wanted to impress her with something since she was cooking everything else and I figured I couldn’t miss with that. And I was right!” she says.
In addition to doing the baking, Roberts also makes The Pig + the Pit’s pickles, does their social media and website, and helps Donati with prep work in the kitchen. Because Roberts’ mother is immunocompromised, they work side by side, just the two of them, to minimize risk from Covid-19.
They have, however, been cultivating relationships with area farmers and farm markets, including Strawberry Hill Farm in Chesterfield, and Kerr’s Kornstand in Hopewell.
“We always work closely with farmers,” Roberts says. “We didn’t want to come in as interlopers, but we’re slowly introducing ourselves, letting them know that we’re serious about what we do, and if they have produce we can get, we’ll use it.”
With The Pig + the Pit being a pop-up restaurant, Roberts says a lot of customers have been asking if they only plan to be open for a limited time.
“The answer,” Roberts says, “is ‘as long as people keep coming, we’ll be here!’”
The Pig + the Pit, 20 N. Main St., Pennington NJ 08534. Facebook: The Pig + the Pit.