Italian Pork Cuts: Culatello, Coppa, Pancetta, Guanciale & Lardo
Italians love their pork! Air-cured meats such as Culatello, Coppa, Pancetta, Guanciale & Lardo are staple delicacies hailing from many regions in Italy.
By Piergiorgio and Amy Nicoletti
Culatello di Zibello (D.O.P.)
In my opinion, if there is a “best of all” among the very best of Italian salumeria, it is the Culatello di Zibello (D.O.P.), made in Emilia-Romagna, particularly in the small town of Zibello. Culatello is a unique specialty made with the back of the pig’s haunches. As specified by its D.O.P. label, the pigs used to make this delicacy must be bred and raised only in this particular region, where they are fed fresh grains and cereals, as well as the whey and leftovers from the production of the famous parmigiano and grana cheese that is made in this area as well. There is something magic in the making of this masterpiece of [[wysiwyg_imageupload::]] salumeria, the Italian craft of preserving and air curing pork meat. Besides the special care in feeding that these hogs receive, a large reason for the extraordinary outcome of this delicacy is due to the unique climactic conditions in this area on the banks of the Po River: foggy, humid winters alternate with long, torrid summers. These regular fluctuations in temperature and humidity favorably affect the aging process. Of course, tremendous care is given to every step in the making of a great culatello: salting, resting, filling of casings, tying, and aging. The ultimate result is a bright red meat with very little white grain or fat; this salume is considered superior to even the celebrated prosciutti of Parma or San Daniele. There is twice as much demand for culatello as there is supply, and as a result, culatello is the priciest salume of all; it costs twice as much as the best prosciutto. But the full, complex taste of culatello is incomparable; quite frankly, it’s magic. If you visit the Emilia-Romagna region one day, you must try it for yourself.
Coppa or capocollo
Coppa (called capocollo in parts of central and southern Italy) is a wonderfully tasty salume (salted, air-cured pork meat). Though it’s possible to find excellent varieties in many regions of Italy, only two versions of coppa carry the D.O.P. label, ensuring the highest care in production and guaranteeing the product is made only in specific geographic areas: coppa di Piacenza (in Emilia-Romagna) and capocollo di Calabria. Coppa is made with meat from the pig’s neck muscles; it has a cylindrical shape and typically weighs 7 to 10 lbs. The key phases of production for coppa—that is, salting, resting and aging—are very similar to those for prosciutto crudo with some notable differences. Besides salt, typically spices such as black or white pepper, cinnamon, cloves and bay leaves are added to the meat before it is incased in a natural skin and tied up with string; it is then aged from three to six months. Of course, different regions use their own unique recipes for the herbs and spices. For example, in Umbria, capocollo is seasoned with coriander and fennel seeds; in Basilicata, they add local hot pepper powder. Capocollo di Calabria, which is often lightly smoked before aging, tends to be more salty than the coppa made in northern Italy, as are other salumi products from the central southern regions. In general, coppa has a bright red color with some pinkish-white fatty parts, which account in part for its complex taste and rich aroma.
Pancetta (air-cured pork belly)
Pancetta is made with the same cut of meat used to produce bacon—that is, the “pancia” or belly of the pig. The difference is that pancetta is not smoked, but rather it’s salted and air cured; and there are no sugars added—instead spices like pepper (sometimes hot pepper), fennel seeds, coriander, rosemary and juniper berries are used. The amount of lean streaks of meat in pancetta varies; the color of these lean parts should be rose to red, and pinkish white for the fat. Like most salumi in Italy, pancetta has been made for thousands of years, following methods and traditions that have changed remarkably little over time. There are three types of pancetta: pancetta tesa (flat), pancetta arrotolata (rolled) and pancetta coppata. The first one has the same shape as bacon; it is salted for approximately three to seven days, and then sometimes washed with white wine. Then, the concia (that is, the herbs and spices used for curing) is applied to the parts not covered by skin; the pieces are then [[wysiwyg_imageupload::]] left to mature in cellars or special temperature-and-humidity controlled rooms for two to three months. The second type, pancetta arrotolata is rolled so that the concia ends up inside the pancetta; it is then usually encased in a natural skin and tied. This version of pancetta is often slightly leaner than the flat version. Pancetta coppata is a slice of pork belly, salted and treated with spices, and then rolled over a very lean loin of pork. It’s truly exquisite, especially if it’s made the artisanal way. Two renowned pancette (plural form) are the Piacentina (D.O.P.) from Emilia-Romagna and pancetta Calabrese (D.O.P.), though very good pancette are made in many other regions as well.
In Italy, there is also air-cured lard which is taken from the shoulder and back of the pig. The most famous versions of this are lardo di Colonnata, I.G.P. from Tuscany and lardo d’Arnaud, D.O.P (from Val d’Aosta). In Italy, both pancetta and lardo are often eaten simply with bread; they are also widely used in cuisine, especially pancetta. For example, thin slices of pancetta are often rolled, together with rosemary, around veal, beef or turkey roasts to keep them moist while cooking. Pancetta is often used with eggs, such as in frittate, as well as for cooking potatoes, soups and numerous pasta dishes.
Guanciale (Pigs cheeks)
This is a traditional and ancient specialty of Lazio and Umbria, though nowadays other regions in Italy are producing guanciale and achieving very good results. Guancia, which means “cheek” in Italian, is the meat derived from the jowls of the pig. In the countryside of central Italy, it’s a common sight to see these triangular pieces of meat hanging to dry in shops and cellars. Though the seasoning and aging of guanciale are very similar to pancetta, if you’ve ever tasted a good guanciale you know the difference. Guanciale often has a couple of streaks of lean pink meat and is surrounded by a delicate, sweet-tasting fat. It’s a real delicacy—a bit stronger than pancetta, with a fuller flavor. For centuries, guanciale was an important part of the farm workers’ outdoor meal in the fields, eaten sparingly with bread. A little slice of guanciale along with pecorino, some bread, and a jug of wine would have cheered up even the most tired peasant. Roman cuisine long ago adopted guanciale and created two masterpieces: spaghetti or bucatini all’Amatriciana and spaghetti alla carbonara. Only pecorino—never parmigiano—is served with them.