Swig & Swine Goes Whole Hog

A new all-wood whole hog joint has opened in Summerville, SC

By Robert F. Moss

A whole hog on the pit at Summerville's Swig & Swine
A whole hog on the pit at Summerville's Swig & Swine (Robert F. Moss)
Last week I took a drive out to Summerville, South Carolina, to tour the new pit room at Swig & Swine, which opened its doors to the public earlier this fall. I was both impressed and encouraged by what I found.

First, the impressed part: it’s a huge pit room, some 1,600 square feet in all. Extending off the back of a building that once housed a pizza joint, it’s separated from the main dining room by tall glass windows so that customers can look right in and see the crew in action. Inside, amid a haze of smoke, five big metal pits are filled with everything from brisket and ribs to pork belly and even whole hogs.

That’s right—whole hogs. And that’s the encouraging part. After many years of long, slow decline, cooking whole hog barbecue—and, especially, cooking it the old fashioned way over real wood coals—is enjoying a remarkable resurgence. And that includes a new whole hog joint arriving on an already flourishing Lowcountry barbecue scene.

The Summerville restaurant is the second location of owner/pitmaster Anthony DiBernardo’s Swig and Swine. He opened the first in Charleston’s West Ashley neighborhood in 2014, and he recently started cooking a whole hog there each Tuesday, though he didn’t have space in his pit room (which at 550 square feet is just a third the size of the Summerville one) to make it part of the daily menu.

The pitroom at Swig & Swine
The pitroom at Swig & Swine (Robert F. Moss)

There are no such limitations at the new location, where they cook at least three pigs a night. They’re big ones, too—around 160 pounds each. Right now, DiBernardo says, they are serving as many as 24 pigs a week, and he expects that number to only grow.

The Journey of a Whole Hog Cook

DiBernardo wound up cooking South Carolina-style whole hog barbecue via a rather circuitous route. He grew up in the Philadelphia area and joined the Navy right out of high school. He ended up being stationed in Charleston, where he served as a cook on the USS Batfish, an old Sturgeon-class submarine that had been commissioned way back in 1972. “I cooked for 100 enlisted men and 30 officers,” DiBernardo says. “Four meals a day. The kitchen had a six-foot, five-inch ceiling. And I’m six-foot-five.”

Anthony DiBernardo went from cooking on a submarine to cooking in a pit room
Anthony DiBernardo went from cooking on a submarine to cooking in a pit room (Swig & Swine)

After the Navy, DiBernardo pursued a career in fine dining, working on the opening crew at Charleston’s Blossom Restaurant and then heading out to Kiawah Island in 2002 to take over the kitchen at Jasmine Porch. “That’s where I got bit by the barbecue bug,” he says. The resort hosted a regular oyster roast and barbecue at Mingo Point, which featured a whole hog laid out for guests to pick.

Despite his Philly and South Jersey roots, DiBernardo says, whole hog barbecue wasn’t exactly a new thing for him. “My father was a butcher,” he says, “and he would slaughter and butcher hogs.” In his early teens, DiBernardo was already smoking Christmas hams and even roasting whole pigs with his family. The big difference from South Carolina barbecue, he says, is that “we use sauce here, and olive oil, rosemary, and garlic there. It’s all low and slow, though.”

Doing It the Hard Way

In the pit room at the new Summerville location, DiBernardo has four rectangular, front-loading metal pits from Elm City, North Carolina’s BQ Grills along with three huge custom-made offset smokers. The offset smokers, which are used for brisket and ribs, burn logs in their side fireboxes, but for the BQs are fired the old fashioned way with shovels full of glowing coals. Those coals are rendered down from red oak logs in an indoor version of a Pee Dee burn barrel—a custom built metal firebox with double metal walls filled with four inches of sand on the sides and back to minimize the heat that radiates toward the pit house walls.

It’s a 24x7 operation, with three shifts working around the clock to keep the pits fired. DiBernardo flips the hogs at the very end and mops them with a basting sauce that’s 3 parts of the restaurant’s vinegar sauce with 1 part of their mustard-based sauce, to give it little Midlands South Carolina touch. Pulled by hand into long strands, the finished pork has that unmistakably wonderful smoky flavor and juicy texture that you just can’t get from shoulders or hams alone.

But the virtues of going old school extend far beyond the flavor of the meat. Because he buys whole hogs, DiBernardo can use the heads and livers to make old-fashioned hash-and-rice, and his version is a luxuriously rich, tangy concoction. The pits, he notes, “are the majority of my cooking equipment,” so it’s only natural he puts them to use for the side dishes, too. The brussels sprouts, for instance, are blanched, tossed in brisket fat, then put on the pits in big perforated pans to smoke.

Despite the burn barrel and the wood coals, though, Swig and Swine doesn’t adhere to the spare minimalism of traditional Carolina joints, and in that way it has a lot in common with many of the other new Charleston barbecue joints opening their doors these days. As in West Ashley, the Summerville location boasts a full bar with a generous slate of local craft brews and an impressive line up of bourbon, including a row of Pappy Van Winkle bottles on the center shelf. The lineup of seven meats include an impressive Texas-style brisket, housemade sausage, and smoked turkey—items unheard of on a South Carolina barbecue menu just a decade ago.

Pork belly, ribs, turkey, and pulled whole hog at Swig & Swine, Summerville, SC
Pork belly, ribs, turkey, and pulled whole hog at Swig & Swine, Summerville, SC (Robert F. Moss)

“It’s the whole full service [restaurant] combined with barbecue,” DiBernardo says. “It’s taking the art and the love of barbecue and trying to transfer it into a full service dining experience.”

When asked why he decided to make whole hog a regular item at the Summerville restaurant, DiBernardo pauses for a moment. “This is what I do,” he says. “It’s the only thing I do, other than spend time with my kids. I guess my mission is to make things as hard a possible on myself. But I take pride in the fact that a lot of people aren’t willing to put in the time—the whole instant gratification thing.”

The gratification may not be so instant for DiBernardo and his crew, but Lowcountry barbecue fans should find themselves satisfied very quickly indeed.

About the Author

Robert F. Moss

Robert F. Moss is the Contributing Barbecue Editor for Southern Living magazine, Restaurant Critic for the Post & Courier, and the author of numerous books on Southern food and drink, including The Lost Southern Chefs, Barbecue: The History of an American Institution, Southern Spirits: 400 Years of Drinking in the American South, and Barbecue Lovers: The Carolinas. He lives in Charleston, South Carolina.