Guide to Cured Italian Meats: Salami, Salame, or Salumi salame salumi salami cacciatore prosciutto prosciutto cotto, finocchiona, capocollo, soppressata, culatello, mortadella
One of the highlights of my summer trips to Calabria as a small child included spending time on my grandfather’s working farm. Nonno Vincenzo’s farm was a 10 minute drive north of the small village of Pellegrina on Via Nazionale. Nonno would wake me up early in the morning and we’d jump into his white Fiat 500. While sitting in the passenger seat I anticipated a ride on his red tractor, visiting with the many roaming goats, and running through the olive tree orchards. However, I was secretly looking forward to one thing above all else: lunch! Lunch included the typical pasta starter, green, roasted meat, and tons of figs, peaches, wild berries, and cactus pears, but it was the cured meats that we ate before lunch that I enjoyed most. You see, Nonno was an expert salumi maker and he kept his best products hidden the entire year for his American grandkids to enjoy (at least that’s what he told me, though my Italian cousins Vice, Maria, Vincenzo, and Giuseppe all had that “salumi glow” about them!). Hence our Guide to Cured Italian Meats: Salami, Salame, or Salumi
Nonno produced wonderful cacciatore, capocollo, salt pork, and soppressata. The cured meats represented the ideal combination of salt, red pepper, herbs, wine, and intoxicating flavor and I often filled up on the meat and homemade bread and had no use for lunch. Salumi antipasto equaled lunch for me and a bit of frustration for my grandmother who didn’t appreciate the fact that nonno tempted his grandson with “vile” salted pork!
My love of cured meats continues to this day, but nonno has stopped running his farm and there are no pigs left to make capicollo, so we’re left to buying our cured meats from a salumeria (an insult and something that is looked down upon in rural Italy).
It’s even harder to find good salumi in the US, but the situation is changing with many local, artisan, salami makers sprouting up in places like California (see my recommended online shops below). It’s also technically illegal to import Italian cured meats into the US, so outside of Prosciutto di Parma (which is allowed) finding good Italian cured meats can be a challenge outside of large, ethnic, cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, etc.
What follows are my personal favorites in terms of salumi and a small description of how to consume and enjoy the cured meats. Looking for a more detailed review on specific salumi makers in US, here’s my recent review/article on Columbus Artisan and Creminelli (both companies are making excellent, artisan, salami). If you’re looking to produce your own salumi then start with Rhulman’s excellent book called Charcuterie: The Craft of Salting, Smoking, and Curing or the newer book Salumi by the same authors.
There are eight basic, cured/smoked, pork products made throughout Italy, including, but not limited, to:
My all time favorite cured meat and apparently Tony Soprano enjoyed it as well (though his pronunciation of the delicacy wasn’t exactly grammatically correct). Capo means head or neck in Italian and the capicola is made from the neck or shoulder of a pig. Capicola has a tender texture and usually smoked and prepared with a variety of spices, herbs, and sometimes wine. I enjoy capicola in a sandwich made from fresh baguette. I usually don’t include any condiment or cheese as I don’t want to mess with the flavor of the meat.
Literally means hunter and the folklore states that hunters used to carry this small salami in their pack and eat several pieces for sustenance during the hunt. Cacciatore is usually 6-7 inches in length and cured with the usual spices, wine, and herbs. Cacciatore tends to be a bit tougher than Capicola or Prosciutto. I love cacciatore with sharp Provolone and good bread. You could use the meat for a sandwich but the small pieces aren’t ideal.
Like cacciatore, Soppressota is made from pressed pork belly, tongue, stomach and other parts of the pig. Again, spices and herbs vary by region and preference. Soppressota can be spicy and is an excellent meat for sandwiches. If you want to try and make your own see Michael Rhulman’s recipe on his exceptional food blog. Soppressata is less chewy and compacted than cacciatore and has the consistency of sausage. Generally speaking it’s important to note that most salumi are either categorized into products made from ground pig parts or from whole sections of the pig (for example, sopresseta versus prosciutto).
Made from the pig’s jowl.
Prosciutto (made from the back leg of the pig) or dry cured ham comes in two different styles: prosciutto crudo (uncooked) or prosciutto cotto (cooked). Prosciutto di Parma or San Daniele (from Friuli and Emilia) are examples of prosciutto crudo.
Most salumi affeciondads have a love hate relationship with salt pork; I happen to love this fatty, bacon like, salumi but it tends to be very salty. Moreover, I don’t particularly like cooking with salt pork, thought most folks use it as a fat for sautéing. I enjoy salt pork cut very thin with chunks of parmiggiano reggiano and a glass of homemade wine (I think the juxtaposition of the complex and creamy parmiggiano goes will with the simple, salty, and earthy flavors of homemade wine and salt pork). Salt pork is made from the pig’s belly and is not smoked.
From the Academia Barilla web site, “Spalla is made from a large pork shoulder (preferably 46 to 48 lbs), including the coppa (a specific cut of pork neck and shoulder). After having remove the excess meat and rolled up the spalla, it is left to cure in a mixture of salt, pepper, cinnamon, garlic and nutmeg. It is places in a cold room, salted a second time and left for a couple of weeks. Then it is tied up, placed in a bladder casing and bound again from the bottom up. It is left in a cold environment for one to two months before consumption. It can be eaten raw, if well aged, or cooked, its more common form. The preparation, which follows very specific rules passed down through the centuries, calls for cooking the spalla in hot but not boiling water (160-175° F), seasoned with wine and bay leaves.”
Lardo is produced from back fat and usually cured with rosemary. The most prized lardo is produced in the city of Carrara in northern Italy and usually consumed with a glass of white wine for a wonderful anitpasto.
As you probably guessed, Pancetta is another salt cured and spiced salumi made from the belly of the pig. Most folks know pancetta and fry it to use in varied dishes. Pancetta when done is small batches is usually produced in a flat manner with the fat located on one side (unlike the rolled kind you will find in most shops in US). I’ve had both varities and it’s not one of my favorites. See Rhulman’s recipe if you want to try and make pancetta at home:
Speck is a type of Prosciutto made with the hind leg of a pig, however the bone is usually removed with this kind of salumi. Speck is usually cut thin and served with bread. The flavor is robust and the texture a bit chewy. Speck is also a smoked product. I’m not a big consumer of this cured meat, but it is tasty.
Culatello is a special type of Prosciutto made via larger pigs. Culatello is a prized cured meat and extremely flavorful. Here’s a nice write up on Culatello as I don’t have too much experience with the product (it’s a bit expensive).
Also, see La Cucina Italiana’s salumi FAQ as well as their Oct, 2009 article on artisinal salumi makers in the US. There’s an almost infinite variation of salumi produced in Italy and to catalog each and every variety would be on the scale of trying to catalog every variation of pasta shape.
Finally, here’s a list of where to purchase artisanal meats online: