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Heaven, thinly sliced

Times Staff Writer

Friends know me as a Francophile, with a special fondness for truffles, foie gras, lobster and caviar. But friends also know that I don’t eat any of these nearly as often as I eat such distinctly non-French, non-luxury foods as hot dogs, hamburgers, barbecue, pizza and pastrami. And what I eat even more often is what my father used to call “cold cuts,” what the Italians call salumi, smoked and cured meats: prosciutto, salami, guanciale, capicolla, coppa, lardo, soppressata, mortadella, bresaola.

At Osteria Angelini, my favorite casual Italian restaurant in Los Angeles, my appetizer of choice is the affettati misti -- assorted salumi, which includes three or four of the above-mentioned meats on any given night. My favorite is the house-made guanciale -- cured pork jowl. It looks like a thinly sliced piece of very fat bacon, but it virtually melts in your mouth, leaving a sense of indescribable richness and barely discernible salt.

At La Terza, I order the battilarda di salumi -- a wooden plank (battilarda) covered with assorted salumi that change from week to week. Now that Nancy Silverton is presiding over a tavola Italiana that features salumi every Tuesday night at La Terza, my doctor may have to increase my dosage of Lipitor. (When I went to La Terza last Tuesday, I had the house-cured guanciale, a delicate prosciutto di Parma with burrata and two kinds of salami -- Fellini, a small, chewy, spicy pork disk the size of a quarter, and finocchiona, shaved thin and dotted with fennel seeds.)

Even at Valentino -- long the epitome of alta cucina in Los Angeles, where I’ve had more than my share of white truffles over the years -- owner Piero Selvaggio knows I ultimately prefer salumi to any fancy dish his kitchen can send my way. When my wife gave me a birthday party there two years ago, the first thing we saw when we walked into the room set aside for our celebration was a table laden with salumi of every imaginable variety -- including culatello di Zibello, the most tender, most flavorful prosciutto, which comes from high on the pig’s leg. The pigs are specially bred in the Po Valley, north of Parma, and the meat that becomes culatello is rubbed with a marinade of salt, spices and wine right after the pig is slaughtered. The culatello, still warm, is then placed inside a pear-shaped pig’s bladder and hung to age slowly in a humid, foggy climate that gives it a unique sweetness and pungency. Selvaggio gets most of his salumi from small purveyors in Cremona and Rome whom he’s tracked down on frequent foraging trips to his native Italy.

Salumi are not only delicious, they represent the essence of Italian cuisine, the simplicity that makes it so wonderful and so accessible. All great chefs, in any cuisine, will tell you that to make great food, you have to start with great ingredients. But I’ve always thought that the big difference between French and Italian chefs is that a French chef will start with great ingredients and then try to make them even better with masterful technique and exquisite sauces, while most Italian chefs -- at least the more traditional Italian chefs -- will try to let the flavor and texture of the great natural product speak for itself.

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The heroic porker

This is, no doubt, a vast -- or at least half-vast -- oversimplification, especially in our age of globalization and homogenization, when every cuisine sometimes seems to be borrowing from every other cuisine. But I think it’s still valid -- and nowhere more so than with salumi, made possible by farmers who know how to feed and care for their pigs and by salumi-makers who take great satisfaction in turning these porkers into authentic representatives of their national culture.

Of course, one reason I like salumi so much is that they lend themselves to that simplest, most enjoyable of foods, the perfect lunch, the perfect picnic fare, the perfect eat-at-your-desk, eat-while-you-drive dish: the sandwich.

Legend has it that the British -- in the person of John Montagu, the fourth earl of Sandwich -- invented the sandwich. But thanks to salumi, it’s the Italians who have turned it into a portable masterpiece of contemporary cuisine.

I can still remember the evening, 20 years ago, when my wife and I, on vacation in Italy, had to stop for gas on the highway between the Amalfi Coast and Rome. Unfamiliar with both my rental car and Italian gas pumps, I had inadvertently pumped diesel fuel into the car. The surprisingly attentive station attendant immediately realized that I’d made a big mistake and told me I shouldn’t drive the car, shouldn’t even start my engine, until he’d drained the tank and refilled it with regular gas “or else you’ll ruin the engine and have to pay thousands of dollars.”

But he said he couldn’t drain my tank for an hour. When we said that might make us miss our dinner reservation in Rome “and, besides, we’re getting hungry,” he pointed us toward a building 25 feet away -- the Italian equivalent of America’s gas pump-adjacent mini-marts. We went in and ordered salumi sandwiches.

I don’t recall precisely which meats we had, but I do remember that it was one of the best meals we had in three weeks of fine dining in Italy. I think of that sandwich every time I go to Campanile for “Grilled Cheese Thursday” and order the autostrada sandwich -- mixed salumi, provolone and spicy cherry peppers. When that sandwich is available at La Brea Bakery, next door to the restaurant, I often order it to go, for lunch.

In Los Angeles I frequently buy salumi at one Italian deli or another and make sandwiches to take on an airplane or to Dodger games, the better to avoid airplane food and Dodger Dogs, the two worst offenses to the human palate this side of okra. Or I go to a good sandwich shop and order a submarine sandwich and take that with me.

When I talk about submarine sandwiches, I don’t mean those plasticized abominations served at Subway, Quizno’s and their ilk. I would never order a sub at a place that sells a “sub” called “veggie delite” or that lists as “Classic Subs” such sandwiches as “honey bacon club” and “turkey bacon guacamole.”

No, I mean submarine sandwiches with real Italian salumi and serious bread, with nothing from the sea (or the can) and nothing green but a little shredded lettuce and maybe a few peppers.

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The local sub scene

There used to be an Italian deli/grocery store in Chinatown called Dario’s that made a big, splendid sub sandwich called “The Godfather” that got me happily through many Dodger ninth innings in the years before Eric Gagne arrived on the scene. I also used to take great pleasure in wolfing down a different kind of salumi sandwich -- prosciutto and provolone in the pocket of a round piece of bread that was a cross between pizza dough and pita bread -- at Osteria Nonni in Atwater Village.

Dario’s is long gone, and Osteria Nonni -- like so many Los Angeles restaurants -- has stopped serving lunch and thus stopped making sandwiches. But I’m lucky to live within 10 minutes of Mario’s in Glendale and Big Tummy on the Glendale-Glassell Park border, both of which serve good submarine sandwiches.

When I worked in Orange County 35 years ago, there was a terrific sub sandwich place named Irvino’s. The man who ran it took great pride in his craft and made it clear that some behavior was just not acceptable in a sub emporium of high standing. I once saw him physically eject a customer who dared to put ketchup on his sub. If the guy had used mayonnaise, Irvino might have stabbed him on the spot. After all, everyone knows that vinegar and oil are the only appropriate condiments for a submarine sandwich.

They sure know that at one of my favorite restaurants in Rome. Actually, it isn’t a restaurant. It’s a market. I don’t even know its name or address. What I do know is that you pass it if you walk along the Via del Governo Vecchio between the Vatican and Piazza Navona. It has no door, and there are always many motorcycles and scooters (what the Italians call motorini) parked out front. That’s how I find the place.

You walk in, and on the left side, in the front, is a counter where they sell sandwiches and pizza by the slice. You point at the meats you want, they slather on the vinegar and oil and make the sa*ndwich, and you carry it to the beautiful Piazza Navona a few blocks away. You sit on a bench in the piazza and eat and smile and look at Bernini’s Baroque masterpiece, the Fountain of the Four Rivers. Then you get up and go get one of Italy’s other magnificent contributions to world gastronomy -- a gelato.

Perfetto!

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Where to get it

Big Tummy, 3277 San Fernando Road, Los Angeles, (323) 254-7694

La Terza, 8384 W. 3rd St., Los Angeles, (323) 782-8384

Mario’s, 740 E. Broadway, Glendale, (818) 242-4114

Angelini Osteria, 7313 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, (323) 297-0070

Valentino, 3115 Pico Blvd., Santa Monica, (310) 829-4313

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David Shaw can be reached at david.shaw@latimes.com. To read previous “Matters of Taste” columns, please go to latimes.com/shaw-taste.


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