It's never been unusual to see whole legs of prosciutto hanging in Italian restaurants in America. Some were even so well-made that you hardly noticed the pink paint on their plastic sides. But more and more restaurants across the country are replacing such faux accessories with the real thing. After years of bemoaning the scarcity here of European charcuterie, American chefs have finally discovered the cure.
Some, like Paul Bertolli, of Oliveto in Oakland, California, have been doing it for years. Bertolli, who studied the art and science of curing in Italy two decades ago, began making his own prosciutto, salamis and other meats because, he says, "The variety and quality of what you can import has really diminished or become so uniform as to be uninteresting."
Others, like Holly Smith of Seattle's Cafe Juanita and Paul Kahan of Blackbird in Chicago, are more recent converts. Last fall, co-owner Donna Lennard and chef Sara Jenkins of Il Buco in New York City bought three whole pigs from Vermont. Some of the meat found its way onto the menu in the form of fresh sausages and ribs. The rest, under the guidance of two expert craftsmen flown in from Umbria, was cured in salt, packed in spices and crowded onto hooks in an ad-hoc curing closet constructed in the basement. The legs became prosciutto; the bellies, pancetta; the loins, lonza; and the jowls, spicy guanciale.
Curing meats is difficult, expensive and time-consuming. So why bother? "It has to do with the quality of the handcrafted and having an intimate relationship with where the food comes from," says Mario Batali, who makes fennel-pollen salami, duck bresaola and a marvelously named item called "pig butter" (whipped, cured lard) at Babbo in New York City. A noble and worthy principle, to be sure, but these chefs also share a dirty little secret: "It's incredibly fun," Jenkins says. She and other chefs talk about curing meat in tones reminiscent of an excited ninth grader working on a particularly neat science project. For many of them, curing is a welcome new direction. "Talk to a classical piano player," Batali says. "After so many years of playing the same pieces, he's going to want to try something else."
Down in the basement, Lennard and Jenkins unwrap and cut into their lonza. The meat is firm and has the right pungent bite in some places, but in others, it's too soft: Back to the closet. "This is a work in progress," Lennard says. She's planning to buy three more pigs this fall.