Like so many culinary traditions born out of necessity, the Italian approach to meat cookery and preservation has migrated and evolved over generations in the U.S. as chefs adapt these centuries-old methods to contemporary kitchens.
“Translating that notion of using every last bit of an animal to the modern Italian restaurant goes back to realizing that we crave what was created solely out of necessity: how to extend a protein,” says Chris Pandel, chef and owner of seasonal Italian restaurant Balena in Chicago.
The idea of need dictating utilization surely resonates in today’s labor- and space-strapped restaurant, but the appeal of Italians’ attitude toward meat is as much about nostalgia as frugality, Pandel adds.
“On my last trip to Italy, I visited a Tuscan butcher shop, and in the corner by the front door, there were 30 pounds of salted, peppered, dried-out pig trotters, which would be used to flavor a big pot of Tuscan beans,” he says. “The cook’s pride is being able to gnaw on the protein from the pig trotter after the beans are done. It’s those really tiny, really joyous occasions that have existed in the culture for years. Why is that craveable to us? There’s real nostalgia there.”
The reality of intero animale
With all the sepia-toned imagery of hulking dry-cured hams and ropes of salami coated in chalky mold dangling from the ceilings while trotters bubble away on the stove, the economic reality of whole-animal processing poses plenty of challenges for restaurants.
The only animal chef Matthew Accarrino doesn’t source whole is beef, since it would far exceed the need for his 50-seat San Francisco trattoria, SPQR. The restaurant brings in two whole 50-pound suckling pigs each week, along with whole ducks, guinea hens, chickens, and rabbits. He cross-trains kitchen staff on butchery so almost everyone knows, for instance, how to break down and process the pigs into seven preparations (including testa, blood sausage, porchetta, bacon, stuffed trotters, and confited legs) for nightly tasting menus.
“We don’t have a butcher where everything is centralized to one place,” Accarrino says, “so 60 percent of my kitchen staff are fully capable of that entire intricate process for those seven preparations.”
Staff also uses twice-daily meetings to track inventory and establish paradigms for meat preparations.
“If we’re buying whole, feet-on, head-on guinea hens, then we have to figure out how to make sausage and stuff it back into the neck for one dish, or braise the legs and turn that into a ragu,” Accarrino says. “We come up with paradigms for the different parts so that we can vary and adapt them to different seasons.”
It pays to know your farmer
Every few weeks, Balena brings in a premium hand-raised hog from Spence Farm in Fairburg, Illinois. In an effort to make the best use out of the animals with limited space in a kitchen not equipped for dry curing, Pandel often leans on his relationships with producers and processors.
The process starts six months before slaughter, with Spence growing the pigs to Pandel’s specs, building certain flavor profiles through what the animals are fed—say, hazelnuts for sweeter, nuttier-tasting fat. Before the animals are slaughtered, Pandel decides whether to butcher them or to bring in a processor like Chicago-based ‘Nduja Artisans to turn the legs into prosciutto or the shoulder into spicy, spreadable ‘nduja.
“I’ll take them down to the farm to meet the farmers and pigs, for a little bonding time,” he says. “Right after slaughter, we’ll bring the animals up and talk about flavor profiles and whether the hams are big enough for prosciutto. We’ll cook some of the loin or shoulder to see if it’s sweet or has savory aspects. It’s a very healthy collaboration—no egos at all. It’s about making the best use of the products we have.”
For Justin Severino, chef and owner at Mediterranean-influenced Cure in Pittsburgh, owning a small butcher shop for three years in Santa Cruz, California, and then working at a massive USDA organic meat farm taught him as much about butchery as it did about the impact of high-volume production on meat quality. His experiences heavily influence the philosophy at Cure and his second restaurant, Morcilla.
Because Severino doesn’t have the time or facility to butcher or store all the pork Cure needs, he has an agreement with one pig farmer to custom cut and hold the 10 or so pigs raised for his 45-seat restaurant each year.
“One thing I learned about animals raised for commodity meat is that there are very few knife cuts involved—a lot is done with a saw and with little thought about how to use the animal best,” he says. Large processors, for example, will cut the heads from pigs right through the center of the jowl, leaving too little meat to make guanciale.
That’s why he accompanies the farmer to the slaughterhouse to ensure the cuts are made to his liking. Once cut, the skin-on pieces are vacuum-sealed and stored in freezers on the farm—inventory that Severino owns and orders from as he needs it.
He turns the meat into about 25 cured creations using an old walk-in outfitted with a series of humidifiers and portable air conditioners. Cure sells about 100 pounds of cured meat per week, from porcini and leek ash salami to breseola, lomo, rillettes, and pate campagnola.
“It’s one thing to have morals and standards—and we have those and they’re connected to tradition and technique,” he says. “That said, restaurants are a business; I’ve learned that the hard way. I had to design a scenario where I can stick to traditions and techniques but also afford the program and make money on it.”
Severino’s team is nearing completion of a state-of-the-art curing facility in Morcilla’s basement, which will house all meat curing and drying for both restaurants.
When curing fails
Even with the right facilities, some products just aren’t easy to replicate—like the partnership of pork, salt, air, and time that’s been perfected over centuries in the cellars of Parma to make great prosciutto.
“Prosciutto is unfortunately a huge failure for me,” admits Ryan Pera, chef and owner of the 60-seat pasta-centric restaurant Coltivare and sustainable grocer and butcher Revival Market, both in Houston. “It’s a big piece, and one knick of the knife in the wrong place and bacteria gets in. You don’t know until you cut into it several months down the road.”
Severino echoes this, adding that even successful prosciutto is cost prohibitive, given the months of holding onto that massive, expensive inventory.
And yet each chef’s costly mistakes have resulted in processes that better suit their respective concepts. Severino breaks hams down into four pieces, saving the bone and foot. He makes traditional-style culatello out of the eye and bottom round, rose wine–cured fioco out of the sirloin tip, and applewood-smoked blackstrap ham cured with molasses and rum from the sirloin. The shanks are braised and made into a variety of pates, the bones are used for stock, and the feet are frozen until he has enough to make pigs’ feet croquettes.
Pera breaks down and debones the hams into two- or three-pound individual hams that he cures, smokes, and slices thin for a nontraditional take on country ham. Being untethered from a strictly Italian menu allows him to be creative in how the animals are used.
“Whether we’re doing ramen broth with pork bones or making the best chicharrones you’ve ever had with the skins, whole-animal utilization is about finding ways to always make something better and more sellable,” he says.
The protein isn’t everything
As consumers start to see the benefit of less meat-centric eating, the concept of protein extension is starting to gain ground in the U.S. This approach has long informed Italian cookery, from flavoring a sauce or vegetable dish with a few chewy jewels of guanciale to rendering tough meat into a concentrated ragu that needs only glaze each noodle of a 6-ounce pasta portion.
Fatty guanciale gets added to Balena’s atypical clam pizza primarily because of its effect on the flavor of the clams.
“You’re not eating crispy bacon—that’s not the goal,” Pandel says. “You’re eating something rich, supple, and savory. You bite into a clam, and it’s the best clam you ever tasted, but you don’t know why.”
In one of Accarrino’s favorite dishes at SPQR, he braises buffalo in wine and its own milk after rolling the meat around scrambled eggs, Parmesan, and olive oil. The meat is sliced and served with broccoli and crisps made from the milk skin in a pool of the braising liquid, which is blended together until emulsified.
“The whole dish is that sauce,” Accarrino says. “It’s almost like the protein becomes incidental.”
Following a recent trip to Bologna, Severino was on a mission to make traditional ragu—until he discovered that rather than the archetypal pork, beef, and veal, all he had on hand was a stock of frozen octopus heads. So he ground a mixture of 70 percent octopus heads and 30 percent pancetta with onions, carrots, celery, and fennel in the meat grinder, then sweat it in olive oil “until it turned into a nice greasy paste.”
The makeshift ragu was tossed with squid ink gnudi, fried garlic, and basil and topped with Pecorino and house-made bonito. It’s been on the menu ever since.
“It’s bolognese at heart, but something completely different,” Severino says. Just like an Italian would do.