Divine swine: Hog Heaven finds greener pastures

Now that the smells of saffron, seafood, and garlic are swirling around downtown Belmont with the recent opening of Mas Tapas Bar, you might think that hickory is history.

But Dish is here to tell you that, Spanish conquest nonwithstanding, Hog Heaven is alive and kickin'.

In fact, as soon as this beloved barbeque house left Charlottesville for the greener pastures of Greene County, the chef says business has more than tripled. The reason?

"Charlottesville is not a barbeque town," says Hog Heaven owner-chef Mark Cermele. (We wonder what the new Wolfie's Bar and Grill has to say about that...)

Cermele, who ran the entire Belmont operation with his partner, Brenda Stover, and now has six employees, is more than satisfied with his decision to move his custom-made upright airtight smoker to traffic-heavy, hog-friendly Ruckersville.

"It took me five months to build the place, and two weeks to grow out of it," he says of his little eat-in, take-out hideaway that opened in November just a hundred yards from Route 29. Plans are already in the works to take over the space next door and turn it into a combination catering kitchen and retail space.

With more than eight homemade sauces nearly perfected– from habaƱero onion garlic ("This'll kill you") to "sweet 'n sassy" pineapple– Cermele figures it's time to share the flavor with the rest of Virginia. Not to mention the rest of the country– Hog Heaven barbeque sauces will also be available over the internet.

And we're not just being cute by calling it a "hideaway." Hog Heaven is harder to spot than a pig in a blanket. The dearth of signage and the location itself– on the butt-side of a little shopping plaza which is itself partially hidden behind a Wendy's– makes us wonder if Cermele wants to be found at all. (Of course he does, he's just been too swamped to order bigger signs).

So how do barbeque-lovers find the Hog? Many are regulars from the Belmont days, Hog Heaven converts who don't mind hauling their appetites to Ruckersville for some of Cermele's signature hand-pulled hickory-smoked pork. Others, if they don't hear about it through the grapevine, just follow their noses.

"I get a lot of customers from the Wendy's drive-thru line," Cermele says proudly. "They smell the smoke and come around back to find the source." We wonder if they return to fast-food after tasting Hog Heaven's slow-cooked specialties.

In many ways, barbeque is a dying art. Lots of larger, more commercial operations don't even bother to hand-pull. Instead, they opt for the quicker, cheaper "buffalo chopper," which basically chops up the entire butt– gristle and all. Dish can testify that Hog Heaven does not take short cuts. When we dropped in unannounced on the Friday before the Super Bowl, we witnessed 20 nimble fingers busy at work in the kitchen, carefully turning a "nice butt" into select and non select piles.

And the handiwork doesn't stop there. Cermele even hand-cuts his own fries and makes his own coleslaw, which he insists is nothing but cabbage salad until it has a chance to sit overnight.

So the next time you're in Greene County, or even if you're not, you just may be able to follow the smoke signals to Cermele's swine.