La Cucina Povera, or the kitchen of the poor, is a style of cooking that originated with peasants who cooked with whatever resources they had. Most of our most classic, cherished foods today stem from this tradition. Although it seems counterintuitive, having limited resources necessitated that cooks get creative with their food—whether it was to make unseemly ingredients tasty or to make something good last. Italy is famous for her salumi, which came about directly as a result of la cucina povera. Needing to stretch ingredients and increase meat’s shelf life, peasants resorted to curing (or sometimes cooking) meat, resulting in the delicious variety of salumi available in Italy today.
Italian food is regional, and salumi are no different. Although there are many meats that are eaten across the country, each region has its own specific varieties. They come in two major groups: whole muscle pieces (like prosciutto) or pressed pieces (like dried salami or mortadella). Here are a few of the most common salumi across Italy.
Prosciutto is unquestionably the best known Italian cured meat, with the two most known varieties being “Prosciutto di San Daniele” and “Prosciutto di Parma.” Prosciutto is made from the leg of a pig, which is salted and hung for a number of months, transforming the meat into smooth, savory, fatty goodness. While San Daniele and di Parma prosciutto are the most widespread, there are many different types across the regions. Prosciutto di Norcia, for instance, utilizes a more “rough” pig from the Norcia region. The result is a more intensely flavored, though less delicate, prosciutto. It is worth noting that, in Italian, prosciutto simply means ham. Cured prosciutto is known as “prosciutto crudo” (raw) while cooked ham goes by “prosciutto cotto.” Prosciutto is delightful served on its own as part of an antipasto of mixed meats and cheeses, or simply in a panino.
Speck is prosciutto’s mysterious, smoky sister. She comes from the north of Italy, and combines two meat preserving techniques—curing and smoking. The amount of smoke on the final product depends greatly on the producer, but typically only a mild smokiness is imparted on the meat. Again, speck is best enjoyed simply, with some good bread, cheese, and wine.
Any Italian-American, or anyone who watched The Sopranos, will know of Capocollo (gabagool!). Capocollo is incredibly regional, with different spellings and even names depending on the region. Around Lazio, capocollo is more commonly known as Lonza. Capocollo comes from the muscle of a pig that runs from the neck to the ribs. It is cured, then sliced very very thin. The seasoning of capocollo varies depending on the region, but it can include wine and various herbs and spices. Capocollo makes a mean sandwich or addition to a sliced meat platter.
The Italians don’t just cure pork, beef gets its share of attention as well. Bresaola is basically capocollo made with beef instead of pork. It is typical of the North of Italy, and it is very delicious. Bresaola tends to be a bit leaner than other salumi. While bresaola is wonderful on its own, it is also great as part of a salad with arugula, black pepper, and parmigiano. I once had the salad on top of pizza, and it was divine.
Guanciale. Angels weep. Guanciale is cured pork cheek, plain and simple. It is absolutely integral for making Rome’s most famous pastas (gricia, carbonara, and amatriciana). While it can technically be eaten raw, guanciale is most often cut into cubes or strips then fried. It is excellent in pasta sauces, with sauteed vegetables, and in soups. Guanciale has a sweet, pure, porky flavor. It is not smoked.
Pancetta is found all across Italy and is consumed in a variety of ways. Some pancetta is rolled then eaten raw and sliced thin, while flat pancetta is more typically cooked. Pancetta is the cured fatty belly of a pig. It is not traditionally smoked, but some varieties found abroad may be smoked. Some will say that pancetta is better or more traditional than guanciale when preparing carbonara and/or amatriciana, and we should respect their opinions (but keep using guanciale anyway).
Lardo is cured fatback, not simply “lard” (which is known here as “strutto”). It is made all over Italy, but some of the best comes from Colonnata, a town that is part of Carrara, where Michelangelo sourced his marble. The lardo is cured in special containers made of this same marble, without any additives or preservatives, only spices and herbs. Lardo is best eaten on a just grilled piece of bread, or draped gently over slices of tomato. Heaven.
Mortadella is not a cured salumi, but a cooked one. It is made from ground pork, cubes of fat, black pepper, pistachios, and other spices. It is very typical of the Emilia-Romagna region. The closest comparison outside of Italy is American bologna, which is nowhere near as good, but is similar texturally. Mortadella is delicious stuffed into a slice of warm pizza bianca, where it softens slightly and marries beautifully with the soft dough.
Coppa di Testa
True, delicious cucina povera. Coppa di Testa is basically head cheese—the head of a pig boiled until all of the meat falls off, which is then pressed into a form with some gelatin to bind it all together. The result is a soft, savory, delicious salumi that is excellent stuffed into a sandwich.
Salami is a huge, huge category. For reasons of simplicity, we’re going to lump a bunch together here. Salami are meats, usually pork, either ground or minced then mixed with spices and/or wine and fed into a casing. They are then hung to dry for a certain period of time. There are many, many different types of salami. One of my favorites is the Corallina, a salami typical of the South of Italy which is typically on the softer side and filled with huge hunks of fat. Another favorite is Finocchiona, an aromatic salami flavored with fennel seeds. Sopressata is a salami typical of Calabria that is made with less desirable parts of the pig and lots of fat; it can also be made spicy. One of the cheekiest-named salamis is “Palle del Nonno”— grandfather’s balls. There are “farmer” varieties of salami that vary depending on the region, season, and animals involved. Basically, the possibilities are endless.
‘Nduja is having a bit of a moment. What it is basically is Calabrian salami, minced fine, and mixed with a lot of peppers. It can either be cased or placed in jars, because this salami is spreadable. That’s right—spreadable salami. ‘Nduja is excellent spread on bread but can also be melted and used in numerous dishes. I love adding a tablespoon to pasta sauces.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of salumi in Italy, but this is a fair primer. If you find yourself eating a meal somewhere and are presented with a platter of salumi, you might not know what half of them are, and that’s a good thing. Italy’s culinary richness is mind-boggling. We have home cooks, pressed for money, resources, and time, to thank for that.