Some say it was because of a lack of salt in Alto Adige, the mountainous region near Austria. Others claim that the regionís climate wasnít quite right for curing. Either way, centuries ago, families in Northern Italy started hanging pig thighs rubbed with salt and seasonings like juniper berries and bay leaves in their chimneys, letting wood smoke perfume and preserve the meat. After months of air-drying, the result was specka garnet-colored, fat-rimmed ham with a smoky edge. Nowadays, the at-home method has given way to larger-scale cold-smokinga technique that uses smoke but very little heat. Drape the real thing, which became available in the United States three years ago, on butter-slathered black bread or serve it alongside pungent soft cheeses.
WHERE TO ORDER IT
At these restaurants, chefs spring for the seriously good stuffor make their own exceptional cured meat.
Perbacco (San Francisco)
More than 20 types of cured meatlike salami made with Barolo and rosemary-rubbed lardocome out of Swedish-born Staffan Terjeís cellar, thanks to the 300-pound pigs he gets from a farm in Northern California.
230 California Street, 415-955-0663, perbaccosf.com
Luca DíItalia (Denver)
Chef Frank Bonanno marinates beef in wine, rosemary, and thyme, then air-dries it for weeks. He pairs the resulting sweet-salty bresaola with arugula, strawberries, and Gorgonzola vinaigrette.
711 Grant Street, 303-832-6600, lucadenver.com
Boqueria (New York City)
Chef Seamus Mullen serves some of Spainís best-loved cured meats at his tapas place, including fueta salami-like dry sausage from Catalanand, occasionally, the mythic jamón Ibérico.
53 W. 19th Street, 212-255-4160, boquerianyc.com
Cafe Juanita (Seattle)
At her polished Northern Italian restaurant, Holly Smith matches salami from FraíMani with traditional accompaniments like lambrusco and more unusual ones like panna cotta.
9702 NE 120th Place, Kirkland, WA, 425-823-1505, cafejuanita.com
Osteria Mozza (Los Angeles)
To go with the salumi from his dadís Seattle operation, Mario Batali fries up little puffs of dough called gnocco fritto, a classic accompaniment borrowed from Emilia-Romagna.
6602 Melrose Avenue, 323-297-0100, mozza-la.com
These three artisans might just turn your local deli counter into a place where the cold cuts rival anything Italy has to offer.
Armandino Batali (Salumi)
Although he studied with butchers in Tuscany, Armandino Batali (yes, Marioís dad) is no strict traditionalist. Shortly after leaving a 30-plus-year career as a Boeing engineer, he opened a Seattle storefront to sell salami. In 2003, he expanded the operation and began making coppa and culatello, a sibling of prosciutto thatís extremely rare outside Italy. Armandinoís daughter, Gina, now runs the business, and her husband, Brian, oversees the curing.