When I was growing up, cans of Chef Boyardee Ravioli graced American pantries, serving for many as an inaccurate and soggy introduction to “Italian food.” Thanks to a boom in travel in recent years, cooking shows, the Internet and “The Sopranos,” today’s kids routinely ask for “pasta” instead of Spagetti-O’s, and Penne alla Vodka is now a staple on menus throughout the country.
Along with familiarity has come an appreciation for some of Italy’s most delicious delicacies like extra-virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, porcini mushrooms, San Marzano tomatoes, parmigiano-reggiano cheese and, and “salumi,” or cured pork. In particular, the ‘Holy Trinity’ of prosciutto, pancetta and guanciale.
Once you get at taste of soft, delicate prosciutto wrapped around fresh melon or figs, firm bits of pancetta nestled in a rich Pasta Carbonara of eggs, parmigiano cheese and parsley, or guanciale diced into a traditional Bucatini all’Amatriciana with plum tomatoes, onions, red pepper flakes and pecorino romano, it’s hard not to become a convert to this Italian pork trifecta.
All three are types of ‘cured’ pork, which means that salt is used to draw the moisture out of the meat to preserve it, and then the meat is left to sit for a while to age. For a more detailed explanation of the process, check out “Cooking By Hand”, Paul Bertolli’s excellent book on curing meats for the home cook.
Many pork products come from the belly of the pig, but guanciale, from the Italian “guancia” or cheek, comes from the jowls. It has a rich, intense flavor and is a celebrated delicacy in Central Italy. To make it, first the cheek is rubbed with salt, peppercorns and thyme, then it is hung to air-dry, preferably at around 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and is ready to eat after three weeks. It’s rather fatty, but once rendered, you’re left with a strong, rich, porky flavor. Save the fat for cooking as it imparts a lovely, subtle flavor to dishes.
Pancetta, comes from the Italian “pancia” or belly, and is often called “Italian bacon.” That’s a bit of a misnomer because pancetta is not typically smoked the way American bacon is. Like guanciale, it’s salt-cured, but it is seasoned with different spices that can include nutmeg, pepper, fennel, dried ground hot peppers and garlic, and then air dried for three months.
Pancetta is sold either rolled or in a slab. It gives dishes a wonderful pork flavor without the overwhelming smokiness of bacon. Try sautéing Brussels sprouts and onions with bacon, then substitute pancetta for the bacon and you’ll taste the difference.
Prosciutto is the Italian word for ‘ham’, and describes a salt cured whole leg of pork that has been aged for up to two years. It was first mentioned by Cato in 100 B.C., and it’s production today is regulated by the Italian government all the way down to types of pigs used, where they live, and what they eat.
Proscuitto production takes just four ingredients: pork, sea-salt, air and time. There are no other seasonings. Nearly 70 percent of all prosciutto is Prosciutto di Parma, which comes from its birthplace in Parma, Italy. Prosciutto di San Daniele from Italy’s Friuli-Venezia Giulia region is also well-regarded.
So now that you have been primed on cured pork, what is the best way to eat it? “Food and Wine” magazine 'Best Chef' award winner, Tom Valenti, who owns the top flight restaurant Ouest in New York City, has a few suggestions.
“I like it cooked a littler softer, not crunchy, with pasta and a little pepperonici, Valenti says about pancetta. “In a light tomato sauce or tossed with olive oil and parmigiano. It demands a simpler preparation because it’s so flavorful.”
“Pancetta and bacon can be so interchangeable, bacon’s a little saltier. I think pancetta is better because the source is better, it comes from a better pig. It has more flavor.” Valenti suggests that you “use it as a flavoring component. Render it, add garlic to the pan, sauté porcini mushrooms, parsley and serve it with a nice crusty piece of bread.”
Prosciutto had a special place in Valenti’s childhood. He remembers, “as a kid, there was salami and mortadella, but the prosciutto was the special occasion food. We ate it unadorned so we could savor every nubbin of it. It was precious and you didn’t want to dilute its flavor.”
Prosciutto, Valenti adds, “is a singular flavor of cured pork. Salami has seasoning, soppressata has seasoning. Prosciutto is not a forced meat or ground product. It’s the curing of a whole muscle mass. It is pure and true pork.”
To this day he prefers his prosciutto naked and unadulterated. He won’t cook it, as he feels it becomes tough and gets saltier. Unlike this author, he eschews prosciutto with melon or figs. In fact, he doesn’t like meat and fruit together, ever.
“Meat and fruit: Duck a l’Orange; Venison with Cumberland Sauce; Lamb with Mint Jelly; they’re all horrible,” Valenti says. “It’s supposed to be, you use the sweet stuff as a contrast to the meat. Good meat doesn’t need it. That idea comes from 100 years ago when meat smelled so bad you couldn’t get it past your nose, much less into your mouth.”
As far as which is better, Prosciutto di Parma or San Daniele, Valenti says that’s like trying to pick which caviar is better. “Whichever tastes better to you is what’s best. They’re all variations on a theme. They’re all good. I love Parma, but San Daniele makes a tasty little product.”
Either way, Valenti says that it has to be handled properly. “Slicing can ruin it. An electric blade can tear it and can actually heat up the meat and ruin its character and taste.”
At his restaurant, Valenti serves prosciutto sliced by hand and on its own plate. He complements it with a platter of fresh mozzarella, roasted red peppers, basil, olive oil, big chunks of parmigiano-reggiano and crusty bread.
Sadly, when it comes to something as good as salumi, overindulgence can be a bad thing.
“These are all great foods to eat, but they’re high in salt and high in fat, so moderation is key,” Valenti advises. “With these types of food, a little goes a long way.”