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Pop-up kitchen trend reaches Ithaca

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Two Ithaca restaurateurs have started a pop-up kitchen serving street food at Lot 10, a bar on the Ithaca Commons.

Manny Flores and Gentry Morris, who worked at Mercato (which has been closed after a fire last December), opened Belly Ithaca, which serves whimsical pork entrees with locally sourced ingredients.

The pop-up, which opened on Feb. 15, operates on Friday and Saturday nights from 7 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. on the lower level of Lot 10 and serves to roughly 95 customers a night, according to Morris.

Andrew Defran, a financial advisor at Merrill Lynch and Ithaca resident for three years, showed up to Belly Ithaca for an after-work nosh, choosing to sample their pork rillettes, a rustic paté that Flores and Morris served on a toasted baguette and is topped with red peppers.

Defran’s interest in Belly Ithaca stemmed from his patronage at Mercato.“Knowing Manny from his last venture and being curious as to the food, I wanted to come down and try it out,” Defran said.

“It’s my first time at Belly Ithaca and I’m glad I came.”Flores, a New York City native whose culinary pedigree includes working at Manhattan’s Gramercy Tavern, has been thinking about the pork-centric pop-up since he moved to Ithaca three years ago.“[Mercato’s fire] definitely aided the occurrence of it, but I will say that I left Brooklyn three years ago with the idea to do a pub called Belly where the focus would definitely be the food,” Flores said. “It would be pork centric. I moved here with that in mind, but now we get to be a little creative with the presentation. The idea, the fire and the space here [at Lot 10] naturally just led to it happening.”

The low operational costs for food trucks and pop-ups allow cooks to take culinary risks said John T. Edge, author of The Truck Food Cookbook.

“Food trucks and pop-ups are part of the same phenomena in that they are efforts by cooks to produce food with integrity at really low costs,” Edge said. “You can take more chances because your investment costs are lower.

You can take something that makes sense in your own swirly head and you can test it – it’s like a trial balloon. It just happens that the balloon is filled with deep fried porchetta sandwiches between artisanal ciabatta.”

Flores and Morris said Belly Ithaca’s focus on pork stems from the resourcefulness of the pig and the variety available from using pork.

“Pre-World War II, lots of families – both rural and urban – raised a pig and it was something that sustained the family for the year; it came through using the whole animal,” Flores said. “With factory farming, there’s access to whatever we want, but that doesn’t do justice to taking a life and using all of it, so we are focusing on using lesser used parts whether it’s the belly or the ham hocks. Plus there are all these comfort food techniques that have been used for ages that we want to bring back.”

“Pork is really versatile,” said Morris. “It’s really conducive to using the whole animal, and being manageable by one person. You know, I cannot imagine cutting up a whole beef by myself.”

The pop-up kitchen, like the food truck, has become a cultural phenomenon for foodies in recent years, providing both creative and economic benefits. It allows foodies to create or try new ideas without the costs of operating a permanent location.

Matthew Riis, the owner of Lot 10, said the pop-up kitchen was a perfect solution when they closed their kitchen last September.

“We stopped doing our restaurant because it was a challenge for us to develop that steady clientele we needed and our bar took off a lot quicker,” Riis said. “We’re all about quality. These guys use all local stuff. They really prepare in their time and energy, so we’re definitely pleased to have Belly on board.”

Customer Grace Ritters said that Belly Ithaca seems to have found a niche in Ithaca, which can claim more restaurants per capita than New York City.

“I love the food and the concept; it seems to work really well right here,” Ritter said. “It’s very laid back and the food is superb.”

Although the idea of the pop-up is founded in being temporary, Flores said that he thinks that there is potential in Belly Ithaca. Not long afterwards, Defran returned to the counter to talk with Flores after finishing his pork rillettes.

“Back for more?” Flores said with a grin.

Defran laughed and then ordered seconds, this time a porchetta sandwich.

“My first couple of bites proved that was a smart decision,” Defran said. “I’d love to eat more of their food and make this a regular thing.”

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