Meat Is King at Rossoblu, L.A.'s Ode to Bologna

At the Emilia-Romagna-inspired restaurant, chef Steve Samson makes 100 pounds of Bolognese sauce at a time.

Rossoblu Prime Rib Eye
Photo: Rossoblu

It's time to see how the sausage is made.

Chef Steve Samson is downstairs at Rossoblu, his new downtown L.A. restaurant inspired by the food of Italy's Emilia-Romagna region. Samson spent summers as a child in Bologna, enjoying meals made by his Bolognese mother and grandparents in one of the world's most meat-centric cities.

So at Rossoblu, Samson has a basement "butcher box" next to the kitchen and what will soon become a private dining room. (As of now, that dining area is where Samson stores the vast wine collection from a Rossoblu investor.) Inside the butcher box, there is a whole pig, split in half.

Steve Samson
Wonho Frank Lee

"I'm going to take out the shoulder and the legs and part of the belly for sausages, salumi mostly," Samson says.

Samson is making both fresh sausages and charcuterie at Rossoblu, which opened on May 17. Samson started curing meats for Rossoblu three months prior; famed butcher Michael Sullivan (formerly of Blackberry Farm) helped him develop the charcuterie program.

Every week, Marin Sun Farms delivers a pig to the restaurant. Samson takes belly-on chops and serves them as part of a mixed grill with sausages. He's been working the grill station himself on recent nights, mostly using wood.

Despite running the critically acclaimed Sotto in West L.A. since 2011, Samson is disarmingly humble. He tells me multiple times that he's still sorting things out at Rossoblu. Some of his whole-muscle charcuterie, he admits, hasn't come out right, but he's finding his comfort zone.

"The coppa is the best one because it has the right mix of fat and muscle," he says.

Rossoblu Salumi

Beyond the whole pigs that come in from Marin Sun Farms, Samson also gets suckling pigs, which he roasts, from a purveyor in Florida.

And Samson order extra pork shoulders in addition to all that because he makes 100 pounds of Bolognese sauce at a time: 50 pounds of beef brisket and 50 pounds of pork shoulder along with ground-up prosciutto ends and mortadella ends. He also throws in dry-aged beef fat for some extra funk.

"The dry-aged chunks of fat almost give it an umami flavor," says Sullivan, who works for Creekstone Farms, which supplies Rossoblu with its dry-aged rib eyes.

But Samson is a bit conflicted about meat and fat. The chef, who grew up in the area, is trying to balance things out at Rossoblu with some lighter dishes. L.A., of course, is a more health-conscious city than Bologna.

"When I go to Bologna, I'm trying to figure out ways to eat more vegetables," Samson says with a laugh. "It's hard to find a salad in Bologna."

Rossoblu Salumi Plate

Rossoblu offers salads and roasted seasonal vegetables, as well as an eggplant dish based on something his longtime best friend's mother makes in Bologna. That friend, Corradino "Dindo" Corrado, still lives in Bologna with his mom. He came to L.A. for Rossoblu's opening, and Samson has appreciated his feedback and the stash of red-and-blue Bologna Football Club caps he brought. ("Rossoblu" is the team's nickname.) Samson is wearing one on the day I visit the restaurant.

Other alternatives to meat at Rossoblu include grilled fish and Santa Barbara spot prawns.

"Luckily, there's the Romagna part of Emilia-Romagna that's on the coast, and there's a huge seafood culture," Samson says.

In fact, there's a popular Bolognese dish that Samson has decided not to serve because it's ridiculously unhealthy, especially when you consider that it's meant to be eaten after a huge bowl of pasta. The dish, known as petronio in Bologna and more commonly referred to as cotoletta alla Bolognese, involves covering a fried pork cutlet in cheese, béchamel sauce and prosciutto…and then frying the cutlet again.

"I love that dish, but you don't need to eat for a week after you've eaten it," Samson says.

Samson remembers staging at Dal Pescatore, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Italy and having a long chat with chef Nadia Santini.

"She just has an amazing philosophy on food," he says. "It was like a half-hour conversation to make one point."

The point was that giving your customers a perfect experience when they're at your restaurant isn't enough. You need to consider what happens after the customers leave.

"If the guest wakes up the next day and feels like shit, you haven't done your job," Samson says, recalling what Santini expressed to him. "I've always taken that to heart. So that petronio, it's delicious, but it's hard to serve that dish with a clear conscience. It's over-the-top. You could do it, and people would probably talk about it, and it's very Instagrammable. But how much of that can you eat?"

Samson used rabbit to make a smaller and less artery-clogging version of petronio that he served as an appetizer at Rossoblu for a few days, but he's taken it off the menu because some customers didn't quite understand what he was trying to do. He might revisit petronio later, but whatever he ends up with won't be a replica of what he's eaten in Bologna.

"Rossoblu is me trying to create the things that I fell in love with as a kid, but through the lens of somebody who's from L.A. and grew up in L.A. and wants to live an active, healthy lifestyle and not eat triple-fried pieces of meat smothered with béchamel, fontina cheese and prosciutto," Samson says.

But still, he marvels at how his grandfather, "who wasn't a cook or anything," used to make his own charcuterie, build a fire on the side of a mountain to grill meats and prepare dinner without worrying about calories.

"I think there's a weird healthfulness in Bologna," Samson says. "My grandfather fried everything in pork fat, but he lived to be 90 years old and he was riding his bike in town until he was 87."

And while Samson is conflicted about meat and fat, Sullivan is unequivocal.

"Fat is flavor, my friend," says Sullivan, who's known as The Reverend of Fat. He got this nickname at the 2010 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, when he gave a series of "Fat is Phat" seminars.

"I came storming up and preaching about fat, utilizing fat, saying, 'How dare you call yourself sustainable when you throw 30 percent of the animal away,'" he says. "I was just going off."

Sullivan now has "Cure Camps" where he teaches chefs about butchery and charcuterie. (Samson, Walter Manzke, Michael Hung, Chad Colby and other prominent L.A. chefs attended one at Republique last year.)

A day after Samson and I walk around Rossoblu, I'm on the phone with Sullivan. The Reverend of Fat shares some ideas he's had for Rossoblu. One idea is rendering beef fat and using it to baste steaks.

Another idea is taking rendered fat "that's still sort of gummy bear-ish and using it almost like a fat butter on bread," Sullivan says. "I call it like a 'mock bone marrow.' If I put it side-by-side with bone marrow, it would confuse you which is what."

Right after I get off the phone with Sullivan, I text Samson to ask if he's basting steaks with fat and if he might consider spreading fat on bread.

Samson, happy to experiment at Rossoblu, is game.

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