Thereís nothing wrong with standard-issue pepperoniitís a meaty, spicy crowd-pleaser. But until youíve tasted the aged pork and beef thatís on offer at high-caliber restaurants around the country, you havenít had a cured-meat revelation. Many countries produce their own versions, but salumiItalyís catchall term for its offeringsis whatís inspiring top chefs to build curing rooms and make space on their menus for more meat. Hereís a guide to whatís bestand where to get it.
Pork may dominate most Italian cured-meat plates, but beef is just as worthy of your attention. In Valtellina, a valley in a mountainous area of Lombardy near the Swiss border, artisans rub the lean hind legs of cows with salt and spices and age them in the Alpine breezes. After about four months, the meat takes on a purplish color, a velvety texture, and a compelling gaminess that pork salumi lack. To ensure you get the best stuff, buy only bresaola labeled protected geographical indication (IGP)or seek out a chef who makes his own (see "Where to Order It"). The only thing better than real-deal bresaola carved paper-thin on its own is a pile of it drizzled with good olive oil and crowned with peppery arugula and Parmesan shavings.
Just some salt and a year or more of aging transform the hind legs of pigs into delicate prosciutto, the complexities of whichsubtle sweetness and saline tangdepend on the diet of the animal and the quality of the air in which the meat was aged. Two main types come to the United States from Italy: prosciutto di Parma (look for legs branded with the five-pointed ducal crown) and the slightly sweeter prosciutto di San Daniele (make sure itís marked protected designation of origin). But some American versions, like the one from La Quercia (see "American Masters"), are just as well-made. Wrap transparent slices around grissinislim bread sticks sold at gourmet Italian marketsor eat them with a hunk of good Parmesan.
When Tony Soprano went to the fridge, it was often for "gabagool," which in New Jerseyfied Italian means capicola. Coppa, as itís called in Northern Italy, is cured meat made from chunks of porksometimes shoulder, sometimes thigh, sometimes neckthat are seasoned with things like citrus zest and cloves, stuffed into a casing, and hung to age. After several months, the meat acquires a tangy, fermented flavor. The coppa produced in Italy rarely makes it to the United States, but the American-made version is a worthy substitute. Eat it like the Italians do, with a smear of mostardaa mustardy fruit condiment.
Not for a second does the grade-school sandwich-stuffer you might think of when you hear the word salami deserve comparison to the real thing. Basically a sausage made from ground pork, pork fat, and seasonings like garlic and fennel seed, salami has a distinctive bite and a glorious chew. What makes it a near-religious experience is bacteriagood bacteria that eat away at sugar and leave behind lactic acid, giving the meat an unmistakable tang. The best Italian versions canít be imported to the United States, because theyíre not aged for 400 days (thanks, FDA), but now that more American makers are co-opting the Italian method, thereís a good chance youíll see superior salami on a meat plate here. Donít condemn the newfangled types seasoned with chocolate and cardamom till youíve tried them.