More than a few Christmases ago, I was faced with the daunting task of assembling an antipasto tray for dinner after my grocer had switched its delicatessen selection from Columbus brand (medium, okay salami and mortadella) to a company with a wild pig on its label and no flavor inside.
Complicating matters, I was involved in a no-holds-barred rivalry with my son, who was the first to use the word “charcuterie” out loud in my presence and was then living in Philadelphia near a street called The Italian Market. That made him well-versed in all things salumi (Italian for “salted meat”), so he knew the subtle differences between capicola (“gabagool” in Soprano-ese) and coppa, could negotiate the distance from speck to jamón Ibérico, and was becoming Facebook famous for his mandala-like charcuterie arrangements on cutting-board slabs. He even bragged about the proper use of lardo, a trendy ingredient that’s basically spiced pig fat. Forced to scour Los Angeles in retaliation, the big city only yielded me high prices and Columbus meats.
But today, our town is a paradise of salted, dried, cured, and otherwise delectable meats, and the c-word is employed on menus as diverse as Farmer Boy and The Lark. The change came via the arrival of two different retailers, one a blessing and the other a chain. But two more were here the whole time, one of which was rediscovered by my braggart son.
The blessing is C’est Cheese, first arrived in 2003. Though one ponders whether it was worth uprooting a whole neighborhood of stores, the 2014 expanded version of the tiny shop gratefully did not grow overpriced. “I think we are probably very competitive with most gourmet shops,” said owner Michael Graham.
While the cheeses are remarkable, my faves are the charcuteries that hail from crazy town: an addictive mole-flavored salami, a chorizo-like substance called ‘Nduja, made in-house with funky-salty-bitey delight, the wonderful fennel-dusted Finocchionna, prosciuttos (the big sellers), and Graham’s current interest, Rosette de Lyon, an American-made but French-influenced sausage with lime and deep garlic flavors. “Not much call for lardo,” explained Graham, except at Christmastime.
The chain beloved by charcutiers is Whole Foods. Not long ago, cheese and salumi were in the same counter at the Upper State Street store, and it seemed more adventitious and ample then. Now, dried meats are next to the sandwiches, including the commanding picante salame (almost as good as the mole mentioned earlier) and the decent uncured salami — even if that sounds like heresy — called Bella Rosa. The tiny triumph is the selection of mouth-melting prosciutto: The parma is buttery good, and the store does not stock lardo, or even lard.
Metropulos, a little deli that pioneered the Funk Zone food scene, contains some of the best deals and pricier delicacies at the same time. The day I was there, they had Genoan (and genuine) ‘Nduja for $11.99, which is better than Amazon prices. They have a full range of Italian meats, including very reasonable capicola, surprisingly expensive gyros meat, and $70-a-pound jamón Ibérico. And, right, no lardo.
Via Maestra 42 began life as an Italian import store and then morphed into the little, graceful mall restaurant/catering/deli business it is today. It’s the first place I ever had burrata (mozzarella stuffed with mascarpone) and the best place to buy frozen cannoli. But the salumi connection here is solid. Virtually all the meats hail from Italia, and the Parma prosciutto has a long, sweet, salty taste with the integrity of the ham right there on your tongue. The strangest item they sell is bottarga, which is pressed mullet roe. It looks like a sausage and is often grated over pasta — try it on nice fettuccine with clams, lemons, broth, garlic, and parsley. But pozzo people slice it thin and eat it like a slice of caviar — big-time taste explosion.
Maybe cured meats — like ice cream and bread — don’t need to be artisanal to be good. I was looking for plain old antipasto-platter foods, and my son was the one who remembered that Tino’s that moved to Radio Square at Carrillo and De la Vina streets where he used to buy high school lunches. Blustery old Tino is gone, and the paint is still fresh, but there are cottos, prosciutto, salami, and coppa at about half the price of the other stores, and just as good. There are chunks of sharp provolone and bright green olives with a sharp salt kick — perfect before manicotti marinara. And when I asked, the clerk laughed. “Oh yeah, I heard about lardo,” he said. “Maybe we should get some.”