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The ABCs of salumi

You've fallen in love with these fabulous cured meats. Now you'll really know them.

August 30, 2006|Russ Parsons | Times Staff Writer

LIKE desert wildflowers after a rain, a thousand charcuterie plates have bloomed this summer. A few crimson hunks of pungent dried salame, a pale slice of unctuous mortadella -- here a silky prosciutto, there a rustic jamon, everywhere some smoky speck.

Who could have predicted it? Southern California, where even great restaurants need to have a big green salad on the menu, has suddenly gone crazy for pork fat.

You can find these sliced meats at established favorites such as AOC and La Terza, and at new hot spots BLD and Cube, as well as at all of those wine bars that seem to be popping up on every corner, such as Lou, at Melrose Avenue and Vine Street, or Bin 8945, in West Hollywood.

And when the most eagerly awaited restaurant of the season finally opens this fall -- Nancy Silverton and Mario Batali's Mozza, a mix of pizzeria and casual osteria (scheduled to open in late September or October) -- sliced cold cuts will play a major role. After all, Batali's dad Armandino is practically the patron saint of salami.

Ironically, though many menus still label these meats with the French word "charcuterie," saucissons secs are pretty rare in L.A. Southern California's love affair with all things Italian means that prosciutto and salumi predominate. But there is also a healthy sampling of Spanish meats, mainly because La Espanola Meats, a great producer and importer, is located nearby in Harbor City.

Like Eskimos with "snow," the Italians have many words to describe cured meats. As a matter of definition, salame is a cured sausage made from finely ground meat (usually pork); salami is the plural. Salumi is a category of cured meats that includes salami but also other products such as coppacolla and soppressata.

In Italian, the whole bunch -- hams and all -- are generally referred to as affettati, the Italian equivalent of charcuterie, and that just about exactly translates as cold cuts. It wasn't so long ago that the only way we ate any of these cured meats was piled on a sandwich. Now they've got artisanal pedigrees, and partly due to the regulations on importing meat products from Europe, some of the most interesting ones are made in the United States.

In fact, a new American cottage industry has developed making and supplying high-quality salumi. First wine, then beer, cheese and bread -- now there's one more handmade product to become obsessed with.

"What's happening with salumi now is very similar to the bread revolution 10 years ago," says Silverton, the woman who introduced Southern California to the pleasures of a rustic baguette when she created La Brea Bakery.

To this point, local involvement in the salumi revolution has been pretty much limited to the serving and eating of it. Although there are a few chefs, including Gino Angelini (chef at La Terza and Osteria Angelini) and Matt Molina (slated to head the kitchen at Mozza), who are experimenting with curing, salumi-making is not yet as popular as it is in the Bay Area, where having a rack of sausages or hams hanging in the walk-in has become a badge of honor.

Lavish assortments

BUT when it comes to the enjoyment of these meats, obsessed is the right word for Southern California. Order the full charcuterie assortment at BLD, chef Neal Fraser's new informal restaurant, and you'd better clear the table. Out will come two massive slate-gray tiles covered with artistically arranged assortments of prosciutto di Parma, jamon serrano, bresaola, chorizo, lomo, speck, morcilla and two kinds of salami.

At Cube, a new cafe and retail store on La Brea near Melrose Avenue, the menu comes with an annotated list of 20 cured meats, including an exquisite small-producer prosciutto di Parma from the firm Pio Tosini, and salumi from the two top American makers, Paul Bertolli's Fra'Mani in the Bay Area and Armandino Batali's Salumi in Seattle.

Southern California's cold cut pioneers can only shake their heads in amazement at this enthusiasm.

Many local food lovers' first exposure to artisanal salumi came when Angelini was chef at Rex Il Ristorante in the early '90s. But his best-known example, exquisite house-made guanciale that melts onto warm bruschetta like some kind of ethereal, porky butter, was offered only to special guests; it was never listed on the menu. L.A. just wasn't ready for salt-cured hog jowl, he feared.

"It was just too scary," he says. "There were very few people who would appreciate that."

Today, that guanciale (still made in-house), is the centerpiece of the great cold cut assortments that are among the most popular appetizers at his restaurants, the informal Angelini Osteria and the more dressed-up La Terza. And he is experimenting with lardo, pancetta and even prosciutto, though his experiments are still rarely served.

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