Bourbon-Braised Italian Pork Belly Over Creamy Bowtie Pasta

If my imagined Italian heritage was roots on my scalp, I’d be getting dye jobs three times a week. With so many spices to choose from, I can’t help how often I turn to flavors like basil, thyme and oregano whenever I cook. And it usually doesn’t matter what I’m preparing. I somehow find a way to inject the flavors of a country that produces some of my favorite food. So what else would I do with this pork belly I found at my grocery store the other day?

Driven by my adoration for Italian food and bourbon, my Bourbon-Braised Italian Pork Belly is one of those meals that prove there are no real rules in cooking. Unless your goal is to reproduce a meal authentic to a specific region, the only law is to follow your heart (and gut).

Made with almost a full cup of Wild Turkey, this pork belly dish is layered with flavors that would not necessarily be paired with one another. The bridge is the basil — one of the sweetest herbs in my arsenal that connects the tomato sauce to the maple undertones of the bourbon. But don’t worry. The pig isn’t the only one partying in this recipe. Make this dish and you’ll be sure to always have a bit of bourbon on hand for a repeat.

Bourbon-Braised Italian Pork Belly
Over Creamy Bowtie Pasta

(recipe serving size – 4-6 people)

For the marinade:

2 1/2 lb pork belly, cut into 1- to 1 1/2-inch cubes (skin on)

2 tb olive oil

1 tsp kosher salt

1 tsp cracked black pepper

1 tsp granulated garlic

1/2 tsp dried basil

1/2 tsp dried oregano

1/2 tsp dried thyme

1/4 tsp crushed red pepper flakes

1/4 tsp onion powder

Mix the oil and spices together and rub them into the pork belly. Allow up to 30 minutes for the spices to permeate the meat.

For the braise:

1 1/4 lb marinated pork belly

28 oz can diced tomatoes (preferably fire-roasted if you can find them)

1 1/2 cup chicken stock (or broth)

3/4 cup of Wild Turkey bourbon, plus 2 shots (3 oz)

1 tb olive oil

1 large sweet onion, diced (roughly 1/2-inch pieces)

2 cloves of garlic, chopped

8 fresh basil leaves, chopped (keep whole until ready to use)

1 tsp kosher salt

1 tsp cracked black pepper

Heat a heavy pot over medium-high heat. Coat the bottom with the olive oil. Sear the pork belly, flesh side down, for 2-3 minutes. Turn over and sear on skin for 1-2 minutes. Remove the pork belly from the heat. Add the onions and sauté for 3-4 minutes, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned.

Return the pork belly to the pan with the onions. Add 3/4 cup of bourbon. Cook for 2-3 minutes until reduced by about half. Make sure to toss the pork belly around in the bourbon to get every piece feeling lovely. Add the diced tomatoes, chicken stock, garlic, salt, pepper and chopped basil. Finish with one shot of bourbon in the sauce and one shot for the chef.

Bring the sauce to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 2 1/2 hours. Remove lid partially and raise the heat to medium. Continue to simmer vibrantly for another 30-45 minutes until the sauce has reduced and thickened and the pork belly is fork-tender. Stir occasionally to prevent the sauce or meat from sticking to the bottom of the pan.

For the pasta:

1 lb bowtie pasta (or any pasta of your choice)

1 1/2 cup grated pecorino romano, plus extra for garnish

6 oz baby spinach

8 basil leaves, chopped, plus extra for garnish

1 1/2 tb kosher salt

1 1/2 tb olive oil

1 tsp cracked black pepper

3 cups of reserved pasta water

1 cup of half and half

Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Add the salt, olive oil and pasta. Following the directions on the box, cook the pasta until al dente. Reserve 2 cups of pasta water. Drain the pasta and return the pasta back to the pot.

Reduce the heat to medium. Return 1 cup of pasta water to the pot of pasta along with the half and half. Add the pecorino romano cheese and stir until the sauce thickens. If the sauce is too thick, add more pasta water, a little at a time, until you’ve reached your desired consistency and all of the noodles are coated.

Stir in the basil and cracked black pepper. Fold in the spinach and simmer for 1-2 minutes, allowing the spinach to wilt into the pasta.

Bringing it all together:

Dress each plate with a healthy amount of the bowtie pasta. Place three pieces of the pork belly atop the center of the pasta along with some of the tomatoes and onions from the braise. Garnish with basil and offer additional pecorino romano. Serve while warm and enjoy!

Creative Liberties:

I could eat pasta every day, especially when it is coated in a creamy cheese sauce. With that said, there are a number of other routes you can take when preparing this dish, including some that will help cut the calories if you’re counting them.

  • For a slightly skinnier version, cook the pasta as instructed and reserve 1 cup of the pasta water (whole wheat or gluten-free pasta is an option here). Instead of making a cream sauce, return the pasta back to the pot you cooked it in and ladle a few cups sauce created from the pork belly braise onto the pasta. Simmer gently over medium heat and add 1 cup of the pasta water to help thicken the sauce. Make sure each noodle is coated. Tossing in a little pecorino romano is optional but could also be reserved as a garnish.
  • For a carb-friendly version, omit the pasta altogether and serve alongside your favorite vegetable.
  • If you love potatoes as much as my husband does, serving this dish over a bed of mashed potatoes, alongside roasted potatoes or with a gratin are all delicious options. Introduce fresh rosemary to the dish by adding that herb to whatever potato you make.

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