Today, California cooks can get their hands on almost anything an Italian cook can, from pasta made with heirloom wheat to bottarga from Sardinia. Prosciutto di Parma is almost as common as honey-baked ham. We can buy burrata still dripping with whey and chestnut honey from Umbria. But there’s one thing we still can’t get: the exquisite cured meats that have me mesmerized whenever I walk into a gastronomia in Italy.
I know of only one place in California where you can get that kind of authentic handcrafted salumi: Oliveto restaurant in Oakland. Paul Bertolli, the executive chef, is a cook’s cook with an uncommon intelligence and feeling for gloriously simple, regional Italian food. When he began curing his own meats at Oliveto about 10 years ago, it seemed like a mad experiment, but you only had to taste the results to know that he was onto something. And now chefs like Mario Batali in New York are doing the same.
Whenever I’m in the Bay Area, I find myself craving a taste of Bertolli’s sumptuous Toscano salami, Veneto-style soppressata or gamy wild boar salami aged until every bite is suffused with the taste of wild fennel, garlic and other seasonings. Like wine, fermented pork products are living things that change in texture and deepen in flavor with aging. So when Bertolli invited me into his kitchen to make sausage recently, I jumped at the chance. The ancient Italian sausage called lucanica is the first step in mastering the Italian art of salumi.
Bertolli has just published a cookbook (his first, “Chez Panisse Cooking,” was written with Alice Waters during Bertolli’s 10-year tenure as chef at the Berkeley restaurant). “Cooking by Hand” documents Bertolli’s commitment to the food he’s encountered in Italy and also growing up in an Italian-American family. The recipes are wonderful, but he also does something incredibly generous: He tells step-by-step how to make salumi. For those with the time and interest, and the room for a small curing cellar, it is a gift from one salumi lover to the other.
On a windswept fall day, I find myself standing at a butcher block table in the back kitchen. Bertolli hauls out half a pig from the walk-in and butchers it with the simplest of tools, a boning knife. Every week he gets a traditionally raised pig from Iowa pig farmer Paul Willis, founder of a consortium of pig farmers who sell their pork under the Niman Ranch label.
Bertolli’s recipe for lucanica comes from Basilicata, in the south of Italy. So ancient it’s mentioned in Pliny’s Natural History, the sausage can now be found all over Italy, sometimes under different names. Basically, it’s just pork, backfat, and in his version, a little boiled pork skin and seasonings coarsely ground and stuffed into a natural casing. If you’re going to use it within the week, or freeze it, you don’t even need the curing salt. But if you do, he includes a list of suppliers for this and other sausage-making supplies.
The recipe for these delicious fresh sausages sounds easy, and it is. But a visit with Bertolli quickly turns into a master class.
Start the day before, he advises. Cut your meat into cubes and leave it in the freezer overnight along with the meat grinder plates and the sausage stuffing horn. The next day, after you’ve weighed out your seasonings, rinsed the casings and everything is ready, allow the meat to temper briefly at room temperature to bring it to a degree or two above freezing. It should feel almost frozen. That way when heat is introduced in the grinding and the stuffing, there’s less chance of the meat and fat smearing and making something closer to pate than sausage.
I watch as he uses a heavy stone mortar and pestle to pound the garlic cloves to a paste. “I always use fresh garlic,” he says. “I don’t use a lot, either. It’s not an aioli: It’s a sausage.”
Opening a bottle of Pinot Grigio, he pours us each a glass, and adds a splash of wine to the mortar. “That’s to help get all the garlic out of the mortar, and it certainly can’t hurt the taste of the sausage either.” He crumbles some dried sage into the tray of meat, then adds fennel seed and black pepper. Not too coarse, he says. He prefers the pepper in the background.
Bertolli’s love of salumi started early. Though he grew up in San Rafael across the bay, his grandparents had emigrated from the Veneto to the South Side of Chicago in the 1920s. His grandfather opened a delicatessen where he made cured meats, and his grandmother had a clothing store next door.
“We were an enormous family -- seven kids,” Bertolli remembers, “and every Christmas we’d get this big box full of tube socks and underpants and all this stuff my grandmother sold. Along with the smell of fabric sizing, you could detect this wonderful sort of moldy smell. And there, in the middle, wrapped in socks and shirts, was this big long soppressata,” he says, laughing. “Everybody went nuts for it. It was the most delicious thing.”
That soppressata became Bertolli’s madeleine, the memory that has fueled his travels and pursuit of the pig. Bertolli’s grandfather never knew that his grandson followed in his footsteps. His grandmother was able to tell him later how his grandfather would “read” his prosciutto hams and how he aged them on slanted boards so the brine would be drawn deep into the densest part of the muscle.
Bertolli also learned from artisans in Italy. Every trip he would look for someone known for making one thing really well, he says. In order to learn how to make culatello, for example, the exquisite heart of the prosciutto, from the Parma area, he found a producer who was remarkably generous. “He brought in a pork leg that was practically twitching and started from there, showing me how to butcher the cut, and took me through everything step by step,” says Bertolli.
To create a variation in the texture of the lucanica that mimics hand-chopped meat, Bertolli likes to use different sizes of grinding plates. If you don’t have a meat grinder, you could actually make sausage with a sharp cleaver, he says. Of course, in a restaurant kitchen, the grinder is a commercial one, but in principle it’s the same as the one you’d use in a home kitchen.
First he grinds the boiled pork skin with a fine 3/16-inch grinding plate. The pork skin gives the sausage a little crunch, but you don’t want the pieces too big. Then he changes to a larger 1/4- to 3/8-inch plate (in our test kitchen we got the best result with a 3/8-inch plate) and runs the meat and fat through that. As it spills from the grinding blades, the pork is marbled a deep rose and white. “What you want are really distinct particles of fat and meat,” Bertolli says. “That’s why it’s so important to keep everything cold.”
Once everything is ground, he begins to mix the sausage mixture with an ordinary rubber spatula (or you could use a stiff wooden spoon), cutting into the mixture with the rubber blade, mashing and stirring and folding the mixture over until it begins to hold together.
“As I’m doing this, the protein bundles in the meat start to be pulled out of their configuration and they create a sticky substance which is like glue. You’ve got fat and you’ve got lean and you’ve got water inside and the ‘glue’ is going to bind it altogether and encapsulate it. Then when you cook the sausage, it all stays together and the water doesn’t run out, making a succulent sausage.”
Rediscovering the rustic
I’ve been eating Bertolli’s food since the ‘80s, when he was already gently nudging Chez Panisse’s mostly French and California menu in an Italian direction because of his growing interest in rustic Italian dishes. But once he partnered with Maggie and Bob Klein at Oliveto, he delved into Italian cuisine with a passion and commitment that took this already established restaurant to another level.
Oliveto is the first place in America I ever tasted pasta made from wild nettles, or pici, the hand-rolled spaghetti from the Siena area of Tuscany. Every year Oliveto celebrates heirloom tomatoes with a special menu. Late fall brings a series of dinners focused on white truffles, and in February, Bertolli’s fascination with everything to do with the pig culminates in his annual “The Whole Hog” dinner.
But that may be just the beginning. Over the last couple of years, Bertolli has been making plans to open a 10,000-square-foot production facility nearby -- small enough so that he can still hand-tie his salame and sausages. In addition to all the old-world techniques he learned in Italy, he took courses through Iowa State University’s meat science department to learn the science behind curing meat.
Stuffing any sausage is elementary, but it’s particularly important with a fresh sausage not to overstuff the casings or they’ll burst. Fill the casings rather loosely; they’ll tighten up when you make the links. Leaving a few inches at the end unstuffed, he starts at the opposite (knotted) end, bearing down with his thumb and twirling off the lengths, alternately twisting one way and then the other. Using a sausage pricker that looks something like a plastic spool stuck with pins, he lightly pricks the sausages to release trapped air. Finally, he takes a length of gorgeous natural linen twine and runs it along the skein of sausages, looping under and over each twist.
That’s all there is to it.
Bertolli uses the fresh sausage several ways. The most basic is to saute them in a heavy pan with a splash of olive oil and finish them off in the oven for a few minutes to cook through. He might serve them with wilted greens dressed in olive oil, lemon or vinegar and minced shallots. He also likes to serve them as part of a mixed grill of pork, or cook them on skewers with boneless pieces of chicken or quartered small birds and hunks of bread doused in olive oil. In the fall, he’ll make a sauce from the last of the summer’s tomatoes and layer the grilled sliced sausage with the sauce and a loose golden polenta, which this fanatic for detail grinds himself.
By late fall, Bertolli is making large salame and other cured meats that will take months to mature. In the curing cellar, he’s got wild boar sausage, soppressata in the style of the Veneto, lamb sausage and leathery prosciutto. Furred with mold or wrinkled and bumpy, they give off a marvelous aroma of yeast and wine. They’re incredibly beautiful too, encased in nets of linen twine.
Sausage-making finished, we adjourn for a light lunch: slivers of duck prosciutto, dark and glossy as the varnish on an 18th century violin, and slabs of marvelous head cheese, a tantalizing mosaic of rose and mahogany. There’s also a puntarelle salad of dandelion leaves, fennel and celery in a pungent anchovy dressing. And a glass of the best Lambrusco I’ve ever tasted. If I hadn’t just seen the BART train speed by, it would be hard to believe we are in California.