La Cotta, My Beautiful Mystery

Urban Ore is an enormous salvage warehouse in Berkeley, California, that’s cold and smells like cat pee. If you dig an item up that hasn't been priced, you’re at the whims of a guy who may or may not have just finished smoking a blunt, indifferent to your question if not to the fact of your presence there. The price he tells you is a number he makes up on the spot—well, all the prices at a thrift store are arbitrary. But the staff at Urban Ore often seems particularly hazy about the true value of their merchandise.

That was the case with this odd-looking pan I bought there four, maybe five, years ago. Its arbitrary price: $8. Its value in my kitchen: way higher than for pans I've dropped three figures on at Sur La Table.

I fished my baby out of a bin full of badly stained Revere Ware you’d never even think of boiling rags in, much less rigatoni. It looked unused: two oval, concave terracotta plates in a flimsy hinged frame and black plastic handles that slip off easily. “La Cotta,” it read.

I found instructions inside, on a slip of paper. In English with the ring of Italian translation, they suggested soaking it in water before first use, then heating it up slowly over a low flame, without oil or other fat. It was called “La Bisquera.”

Since then I’ve used my Bisquera at least a couple times a month. It’s the best thing in my kitchen, capable of searing meats better than even spun-steel or cast-iron frying pans, then cooking them through so they stay juicy. I heat it over a medium-high flame, scatter coarse salt over the pan's surface, and drop in well-marbled pork chops or chicken breasts with the skin left on. The instructions call for leaving the lid ajar (I prop it open with a cork I balance on the bottom handle). Possibly the best part, besides the texture of the meat, is the jus that forms in the pan. Fantastic. No other sauce is ever necessary.

Googling “La Cotta” and "La Bisquera" hasn’t yielded much—two or three equally curious users, Chowhounds and others, but no information about where La Bisquera was made, or when. Too bad. Then again, maybe I like the mystery that shrouds it, and the flutter of possibility, whenever trolling the sour atmosphere of Urban Ore, that I'll find something just as sweet. I'm still looking.

Photo by Christopher Rochelle / CHOW.com

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.